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Jan 29, 2006

The American Connection

The South Korean stem cell crisis isn’t over yet. Although a Seoul National University panel determined earlier in January that South Korean Hwang Woo Suk and several of his associates intentionally fabricated data, the jury is still out on Gerald P. Schatten, their American collaborator at the University of Pittsburg, where a panel is not expected to come to a decision on his role in the scientific fraud until sometime in February.

On Friday, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a profile on Schatten and his role in the stem cell crisis. Although the author, Lila Guterman, was not able to elicit any comments from Schatten (his policy toward the media throughout the ordeal has been one of silence), the article provides detailed information on Schatten’s background, the extent of his involvement in the now discredited research, and on what the panel will likely find. The article paints Schatten as a tragic victim—driven by scientific curiosity, but naively swept along the by the idea that he would be a part of the group to revolutionize human medicine—and even as a whistle blower, being one of the first to question about Hwang’s work.

In March 2004, the research group led by Hwang reported in a seemingly groundbreaking Science paper that they had cloned several human embryos and derived a line of stem cells from one of them, a major breakthrough in an area that had hitherto remained elusive for scientists. They followed up their first success with a second Science paper in June 2005 reporting the formation of eleven embryonic stem cell lines derived by cloning patients with either an immunodeficiency disease, spinal cord injury, or juvenile diabetes.

Both papers were faked—a revelation coming after it first became clear that the human eggs used in the studies had been gathered by unethical means—and both were subsequently retracted. Schatten was not a coauthor on the first paper, but he was on the second. His connection to Hwang apparently extends much further, though, into the realm of friendship:
Just a few months ago, a collaboration between two prominent scientists from opposite sides of the world promised to change the future of medicine: A Korean and an American together claimed to have cloned human embryos from which they had developed stem-cell colonies tailored to individual patients.

Their relationship was so close that they called each other "my brother."…

A period of great excitement followed for both Mr. Schatten and Dr. Hwang. They became involved in setting up the World Stem Cell Hub, which would distribute Dr. Hwang's stem cells for other researchers to experiment with. In August they published a paper in the journal
Nature saying they had created the world's first cloned dog.

Insoo Hyun, an assistant professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, visited Dr. Hwang's lab last summer for three months. "Everything looked terrific," he recalls. When Mr. Schatten came to visit, he says, "It looked like they all were the best of friends. Hwang and Schatten were referring to each other as brothers."

But in November, Mr. Schatten publicly ended his association with Dr. Hwang, telling
Science that he had been misled by his Korean collaborators. He said the Korean researchers had taken eggs from women in an unethical manner -- an eerie echo of the Irvine scandal 10 years earlier.

The “Irvine scandal” refers to the ironically similar situation Schatten found himself in earlier in his career. In 1995, when he was a researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he performed research on human eggs later found to have been unethically obtained. Schatten was cleared of any wrongdoing, having no role in the egg gathering and apparently no knowledge of the ethical lapses. Whether the fact that he has been associated with two similar scientific scandals is just incredibly bad luck or something worse remains to be seen. Hopefully the University of Pittsburg panel will shed some light on this. Is he just too trusting? Or, is he exceptionally adept at maintaining plausible deniability?

Interestingly, the panel will only investigate some, but not all, of the relevant papers:
Pittsburgh began investigating Mr. Schatten, at his own request, with a six-person panel that first met on December 14. Dr. Cibelli, of Michigan State, also requested an investigation into his own role in the 2004 paper, according to a spokeswoman at that university.

The Pittsburgh panel expects to conclude its work in February, according to a university spokeswoman. It is investigating the 2005
Science paper and the Nature paper about the cloned dog, even though the South Korean panel found the animal to be a real clone. The Pittsburgh panel is not investigating the 2004 paper on monkeys, in Developmental Biology. "I don't think there's any reason to question the authenticity of the data in that paper," says Dartmouth's Mr. Compton. "The experiments were performed in Pittsburgh."

The Developmental Biology paper, published in December 2004, is significant, though, because in it Schatten and his coauthors (which include Hwang) report the application of Hwang’s cloning and stem cell isolation techniques to non-humans, successfully cloning two types of monkeys. Schatten had already spent a large part of his career trying to clone a monkey, and had failed until the sudden success of this paper. With this in mind, the panel’s decision not to investigate this paper seems strange and misguided, regardless of where the research was done.

Funnily enough, the authors have already published one correction to the paper, but it was just to correct a fix error in one of the figure legends.

Beyond the interest in outright fraud, the South Korean stem cell scandal has also made the scientific community think about names—specifically whose name belongs where on a paper and whether it even belongs there at all:
Mr. Schatten's public modesty has led many American researchers to ask, Just what did Mr. Schatten do? Did he do enough to justify authorship of the now-retracted paper?

Many believe that he performed some analysis of the data and wrote the paper in English. (A member of the Korean team, Curie Ahn, declined a
Chronicle request for comment on Mr. Schatten's role.) If all he did was to write the paper, he should not have been named an author, according to convention. Mr. Bavister, of New Orleans, helped write the 2004 Science paper in English for the Korean group. "That alone does not deserve co-authorship, which is why I'm not a co-author," he says. The acknowledgments in that paper mention Mr. Bavister's help.

But Mr. Schatten's name appears last among the authors of the 2005
Science paper, a position normally reserved for the senior author who oversees the work and vouches for its accuracy. "As senior author, he's responsible for everything," says Rudolf Jaenisch, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"There's a lesson here," says Mr. Brinkley. "We should all be very, very cautious about lending our name to publications."

In order to help drive this point home, it seems, the editors of Science are now considering requiring each author on a paper to detail his or her specific contribution to the work. Whether Schatten deserves credit for the work is a legitimate question, although the evidence I have seen demonstrates that he did provide a sufficient intellectual contribution to be an author, at least by the current standards in the field. Whether these standards should stand, though, is a whole other issue. Regardless, requiring statements from each author couldn’t hurt.

The fact that Schatten’s name appears last in the list of authors does not seem particularly significant. As has been pointed out many times before, the first name is the most significant designation, generally reserved for the scientist who did the most work, and the last is reserved for the senior author in whose lab the work took place. In this case, though, both labels apply to Hwang, so naturally he was listed first. Because of that, the question over who should be listed last becomes much less significant.

Either way, Schatten was an author on a paper that was faked, so he should be investigated. All indications are that the University of Pittsburg panel will find no wrongdoing, allowing Schatten to continue his scientific career, although significantly hampered by the stigma this case has generated. However, without a more thorough investigation into all of the relevant studies, the issue can never be completely settled. Assuming that Schatten was guilty only of gullibility, it will be much more difficult for him to not learn the lesson he should have learned in 1995, now that he has seen just how costly such a lapse can be.

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