On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

DOES KOREA HAVE ANOTHER STEM CELL DEBACLE ON ITS HANDS?

The South Korean government plans to invest nearly half a billion dollars into gaining pole position in global embryonic stem cell research. After the worst case of fake research in living memory, more scandal is not what it needs. But that is what is happening. As reported in last week’s BioEdge, Kwang Yul Cha, a Korean who is a front-runner to succeed Hwang Woo-suk as his nation’s premier stem cell researcher, is embroiled in a plagiarism scandal.

The increasingly messy dispute is described in the current issue of the British Medical Journal. Jeong Hwan Kim, a Korean doctor now working in Singapore, wrote a PhD on premature ovarian failure. His conclusions were published as a Korean-language paper in the Korean Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in January 2004. Much to his surprise, he discovered that substantially the same paper was published in English in the leading journal Fertility and Sterility in December 2005 without his knowledge. Six authors were listed — and he was not one of them. The leading author was his former boss, Dr Cha, and another was the head of genetics at CHA General Hospital, Sook Hwan Lee. 

Without going into all the claims and counter claims, the current situation is as follows. Dr Lee is now facing criminal copyright infringement charges in Korea. Dr Cha’s lawyers have accused Fertility and Sterility of defamation. The Korea journal has demanded that the American journal issue a retraction on the ground of duplicate publication. The CHA group has described Dr Kim as a bit player in the research whose email address was lost after he moved to Singapore.

The meat in the sandwich is Kwang Soo Kim, a Harvard professor who had joined the CHA research group only a short time before the scandal broke. He now has the unenviable task of both defending his colleagues and conducting his own campaign for Western standards of publication in Korea. If the issue cannot be smoothed over, a US$2.6 million research grant which CHA received from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is at risk.

Will a clear moral emerge from this tangled tale of cultural clashes, deceit, national pride and laboratory power plays? None, perhaps, except that the full spectrum of human failings is hard-wired into embryonic stem cell research and that professional and government regulators need to take this into account. ~ BMJ, Apr 7   

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