How to catch a criminal cloner

How to catch a criminal cloner

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A big thank you to Nebula  for sponsoring this video. It is November 2005. Dr. Gerald Schatten has  just pulled out of the World Stem Cell Hub.   One month from now he’ll ask for his name to  be taken off the ground breaking paper that   he had written with his close friend Dr. Hwang  Woo Suk. A man he had once called his brother.   In just a matter of weeks, Hwang’s entire  career will have fallen apart. To find out   why this happened, we need to take a step back. Anyone who’s worked in a job where they say “we’re   like family here” knows that that’s just an excuse  your boss uses to guilt you into overworking. To  

pressure you into doing things that may or  may not break a labor law or two. Dr. Hwang,   had on several occasions referred to his lab  employees as one big family. It was part of   his mythos. Hwang was the “Korean Elvis”. A  humble hardworking superstar scientist who   many thought could win the country its first ever  Nobel Prize. A man who was already in children’s   school textbooks, a man whose work the President  had described as more like magic than technology. 

And it was this celebrity status that allowed  his lab to operate unconventionally. If Hwang’s   lab was a family, then Hwang was the domineering  father figure. A love-hate relationship between   him and his nearly 120 researchers. When  you examine the inner workings of that lab,   it’s here where the benevolent mythos collapses.  Although the photo-ops would lead you to believe   otherwise, Hwang wasn’t doing the nitty-gritty lab  work himself. When it comes to this tedious manual  

labour, it’s pretty much a given that it will be  carried out exclusively by junior lab members, who   were eager to impress Hwang with their dedication.  Furthermore, Hwang himself was affiliated with   Seoul National University, inarguably the most  prestigious school in the entire country. And   yet he recruited upwards of 60% of his researchers  from less prestigious schools. Some have argued  

that this was a deliberate tactic by Hwang that  gave him further control. He knew that these   researchers would be more desperate to succeed.  In a society where institutional hierarchies are   particularly important, working themselves to  death in Hwang’s lab was seen as a way to prove   their worth. As a way to elevate themselves beyond  their less than prestigious diploma. He worked   them to the bone in brutal conditions. “The researchers ‘needed to go to the  

slaughterhouse by 5 a.m. everyday [. .  .] their monthly salary was less than   500 pounds’). "The slaughterhouses were  ‘full of screams’ and flooded with blood".  It would later be revealed that Hwang lacked  any hands-on experience with his famous   chopstick technique. Instead he directed his army  of obedient junior researchers to do all the heavy  

lifting for him. One anecdote recounts him calling  early in the morning from the temple he regularly   attended, and gave his workers vague commands  without any clear instruction. One researcher   openly mocked this exchange, saying: “Maybe  the spirit of Buddha has inspired him, again”. 

The toxic parent and child dynamic even  extended to the way he disciplined his   students in humiliating ways. Hwang, in his own  biography, recalls two occasions where junior lab   members were punished for what I feel like are  pretty mild things. One junior researcher was   severely admonished because he was 30 minutes  late to work, even though he had a fever. On a  

different occasion, a post-graduate student who  drove his fancy Peugeot to campus was privately   threatened to be banished by Hwang because the  car was seen as flaunting his wealth. “Both   individuals were forgiven only after the juniors  profusely apologized with tearful faces.” Hwang’s   lab even had a catchphrase. It went like this:  “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,   Friday, Friday”. Hwang liked to joke that their  stem cells wouldn’t stop working on the weekend,   so why should they? No holidays no breaks, just  progress. The lack of any social life had even  

led to several of his researchers marrying each  other, because after all, when else would they   have time to meet anyone? One big happy family. But none of this was controversial. Certainly   not out of the ordinary in South Korea. Rigid  hierarchies in the workplace, long hours with   few breaks. This dedication was a source of pride  for Koreans. Hwang and the media had built up this   mythos that it was specifically because of  this diligence, this tedious manual labour,   that Korea had become the world leader in  stem cells. And many Western scientists   just had gone along with this narrative, this  was a necessary set of sacrifices if it meant   pushing the field forward, potentially  saving millions of lives down the road.   None of this would bring down Hwang.  But soon, allegations were about to  

come out that would soon ignite a chain  reaction and upend the entire field.  Stem cell cloning via SCNT is  notorious for its low success rate,   and for years it was thought that cloning  human embryos was impractical because it   required far too many egg cells. Extracting eggs  from ovaries is risky from a health perspective,   and because egg donors are voluntary and  unpaid, no one lab could acquire enough eggs   to succeed. For years this the primary ethical  arguments against embryonic stem cell research.   The physical toll on donors was too much. And that’s where the questions began. Hwang’s  

first paper mentioned that over 200 egg cells were  used. An extraordinarily large number, especially   since the paper only listed a total of 16 egg  donors. Around the publishing of the 2004 paper   in February, Womenlink, an organization  that represents women’s health rights,   and the Center for Democracy in Science and Tech  both made claims that Hwang couldn’t have acquired   that many eggs through legitimate means, and  that Hwang couldn't have acquired them through   legitimate means. They were worried about the  commodification of human egg cells, of women   being turned into “egg factories”, that Hwang may  have been illegally paying women to donate their   eggs. Paying for egg donations is…controversial to  say the least. The moral issue here is that women  

who are financially disadvantaged are more likely  to donate if they’re paid, putting themselves at   risk, when they would otherwise not take part in  the procedure. It’s the same reason people aren’t   paid to be organ donors, because the less wealthy  would be taken advantage of in such a system. The   key difference is paying for organ donations  it is flat out illegal in almost every country.   Paying for sperm and eggs though really depends.  In countries like Canada, France and Australia  

donors are compensated for lost wages and medical  expenses, but it’s illegal to offer payment beyond   that. In places like the US, UK, and Russia there  are no rules for how much a donor can be paid.  So what was the law in South Korea? The answer,  yet again, is that it’s complicated. Paying for   eggs was illegal under South Korea’s new Bioethics  Act. Not even medical expenses and lost wages   were compensated. But this was a recent change.  Technically when Hwang was researching his 2004   paper, it wasn’t yet illegal to purchase eggs  in South Korea, because the law only came into   effect on new year’s day 2005. Remember, there  was a sneaky 1 year buffer period added to the   law at the last minute. However, the law had  passed in the national assembly, and there was  

an unspoken understanding that all researchers  should stop paying for eggs way ahead of time.   The 2004 paper very explicitly claims that none  of the 16 egg donors were paid. So putting aside   the fact that there was a weird legal gray  area, if this allegation was true, then the   paper was still lying. And that was a story still  worth investigating to clear up any confusion.  By March 2004, the Korean Bioethics Association  assembled a committee to look further into the   issue and see if any conflicts of interest  were present. Now the Bioethics Association,  

which isn’t a government agency, doesn’t  actually have the authority to conduct an   investigation on its own. What it can do is  ask the National Human Rights Commission,   which is a government entity, to conduct  one. The commission opted not to investigate,   and the concerns were mostly dismissed in Korea.  And that could have been where the story ended. 

However, a reporter named David Cyranoski was  working on a story that would bring these ethics   concerns into focus in the Western world. He  worked for the journal Nature, which when it   comes to prestige, was the only journal that could  rival Science. So in other words, this was not an   unknown publication making flippant accusations,  this had a lot of weight behind it. What he had  

uncovered was far more egregious  than just illegal egg trading. "Yes, so I first-I mean I knew Hwang back-I  think I interview him for the first time in   Korea in 2001. So I knew of him and I kind of  followed him a little bit from that point on. But   of course the 2004 Science paper where he claimed  to have made human cloned embryos and established   stem cells from that, that was a huge deal. So  I went back to interview him about that in 2004.   You know that this was a massive development,  what's next for this group? It was that kind   of feature article. But we also had questions  about the stem cells-or the eggs. Because the   egg donors were what really set him apart, or the  ability to get eggs really set him apart from the   competitors in other countries. They claimed  in the paper that it was all volunteers. That   it was people who just gave their eggs for  the good of the research. Well we thought if  

we can get some background on that it would be  an interesting story. And so when I went there I   asked him about the donors and he just seemed a  little bit cagey. Like you get that feeling that   someone's not telling you the whole truth. And so  I started calling his coauthors one by one. The  

grad student in his lab, I was basically  asking do you know anything about these   donors, and she said "well I can't tell  you about everybody, but I can just tell   you about my own experience giving eggs". And  then conversation went on for another minute   and it struck me. I said wait a minute, so you  gave your eggs to the experiment? And then we   had this kind of very direct thing. And I asked  her all the details about where she did it and   why she did it, she said she already had children  and she wasn't worried if she lost the ability   to have children in the future, which is  you know one of the risks of giving eggs."

Her answer implied that she, and at least one  other coworker, had personally donated their eggs.  This was appalling. Coercing a subordinate to  undergo an incredibly risky medical procedure is,   I cannot stress this enough, reprehensible.  A complete violation of ethical boundaries.   A practice that had been banned  for years by the internationally   recognized Declaration of Helsinki. The more you learn about the work   culture in Hwang’s lab, the more it makes  sense how this could happen. Working there   was physically and emotionally draining.  Hwang was the paternal role model. Over  

time this relationship grew more intimate,  and led to Hwang subtly prodding his female   researchers to donate their eggs. Everyone  there made personal sacrifices for their work,   what could be more noble than donating  your own eggs to potentially save lives. "At the time she said there was another student in  the lab that had donated. And I said well great,   can I talk to her as well? And she said what  I expected which was: No, I can't give you   her name because it's a privacy issue. And I said  okay, well why don't you give her my information,  

and if she's happy to talk about it she can  contact me. so 30 minutes later after I hung   up the phone on the first conversation,  she called back, and very panicked said   "everything I told you was not true, it was  just a story I heard from someone else. It's   not what happened, please forget about it." And I  assume what happened was she did as I asked, give   the message to the other student. At some point  she was informed that she shouldn't be talking   to a journalist about this. It was interesting  because she was very proud of what she'd done.   She didn't think that it was anything to be  hidden. So I think it was probably shocking  

for her when people are saying "wait  you can't tell people about this""" He knew the story was a potential  bombshell, and all he could do was wait,   and see how the world responded.  Turns out, not a whole lot happened!  Hwang responded immediately to the  Nature article. "Nature 's claim is   totally groundless. I swear none of my students  donated eggs for the research. For some reason,   the journal is trying to undermine our study.”  He suggested that Nature was jealous that they   had lost out on publishing Hwang’s papers instead  of Science, since both journals were rivals. “If I   force some graduate students to [donate eggs],  it might arise a very big social problem in   Korea,” he says. “If the accident will come  out, it may fail me forever, eternally.” He  

actually said that some students did offer  to donate their eggs but he refused them.   He offered no evidence for his side of  story, citing patient confidentiality,   only mentioning that he checked the  informed-consent forms of the 16 donors,   and his student’s names were not among them. Now on the one hand, Hwang is right to protect   the identify of the egg donors, there’s no  need to make their names public. But why should   that prevent a review board from performing an  investigation with the proper confidentiality?   This very well could have and should have been  done, but never took place. Park Ky Young,  

the presidential advisor we met previously, took  it upon herself to shut down any possibility of   an investigation, stating that: “all the  ethical issues had already been settled   when Dr. Hwang published the paper in Science”.  Again, a statement backed up with no hard proof.  But that was basically the end  of the story in South Korea. "So after the first paper it had an  impact in the sense that it started a   lot of conversations. And within Korea  there were a lot of people that were   bioethicists and feminist groups that had  already been opposing Hwang's research. So   they took it and tried to amplify the message  of it. but within the scientific community and   within the government circles in Korea you didn't  see much of a response. Hwang put out a story,  

I think he helped to have this story go around  that Nature was just jealous of the publication   being in Science. Which was silly, but a lot of  people seemed to believe that I was motivated   to write a negative story about him because  he had published in Science and not Nature." Following the story there were a  handful of people in both the East   and West who distanced themselves from Hwang. “No one wants to debate the ethics because the   government is so excited about it," “Most  scientists are also worried about a lack   of students in science, so they don't want to  break the excitement either. We need a hero.”  “[Hwang] is a genius in building a public  image,” adds Young-Mo Koo, secretary of   the Korean Bioethics Association.“I don’t think  he is a humble man, he’s just pretending to be  

humble,” Koo says. “He sells himself very well.” You could argue that Hwang was controversial in   some niche circles, but his reputation was still  by and large that of a well respected scientific   leader. But the cracks were beginning. What would  it take to make a substantial dent in his armour? Ryu Young Joon joined Hwang’s lab in 2002. Ryu  is a bit of an exception for Hwang’s team. You   see out of all the authors on the 2004 paper,  he was one of the few human doctors. Everyone  

else were trained as veterinarians. Because of  his experience, he ended up as the 2nd author   on the 2004 paper. He was such a critical member  of the lab he was even nicknamed “Little Hwang”.   Soon after the publication however he left SNU  to work for the Korea Cancer Centre. Ryu had   gradually become disillusioned with Hwang.  As a senior member of the lab he monitored  

much of its logistics. He saw when the eggs were  delivered from hospitals, what experiments they   were used in, what data was collected, and what  made it into the eventual paper. Ryu knew more   than anyone about what happened to each and one of  those eggs. And he knew the truth. One day, Park   Eul Soon had confided in him that she had been  “subtly encouraged” to donate some of her eggs.   A decision she had come to regret. In her diary  she wrote the following: “At first, it was I who   started it, but I am fearful. General anesthesia.  Self-cloning. This shouldn’t happen – how can I  

clone with my own egg. I am so cruel.” It was  incidents like this, and Hwang’s tendency to   overhype his results, that to led Ryu to leaving  Hwang’s lab in late 2003. He wanted to pursue   therapeutic cloning, but without the need for egg  donations from volunteers. And thus his PhD thesis   focused on stem cells obtained from discarded  ovaries. Ryu wasn’t the only lab member to leave.   Between 2004 and 2005, the makeup of Hwang’s  lab changed dramatically as many other senior   researchers left Hwang’s team. Ryu and his wife  Lee Eu Gene had left, Park Jong Hyuk and Park Eul   Soon had transferred to Pittsburgh, and Koo Ja Min  has accepted a faculty position at a med school.  

That meant that besides Hwang, the key remaining  researcher was Kim Sun Jong, who Ryu viewed as   an inexperienced junior member from MizMedi  hospital. A name worth remembering for later.  As concerns were raised surrounding the egg  donor issue, Ryu contacted the Center for   Democracy in Science and Technology, an NGO that  among other things, can protect the identities of   whistleblowers in scientific scandals. The Center  was hesitant to go pubic with the story though, as   they feared the immense backlash it would generate  against Ryu, and so they bided their time for a   more opportune moment. And Ryu may have continued  living his life and focus on his new job,   but everything changed with the 2005 paper. If the  2004 paper had been a miracle, the 2005 paper was  

approaching a fairy tale. All the senior members  of Hwang’s lab had left, and yet they had someone   managed to produce 11 entire stem cell lines.  His concerns went beyond the egg donor issue.   He suspected the work was straight up fraud. “I  knew how difficult it was,” “It wasn’t logical.”  “On top of these technical difficulties,  he was well aware of Hwang’s penchant to   exaggerate experimental results, sidestep rigorous  testing, and jump to conclusions.” He did all this   “because of his obsession with the Nobel Prize.” “What worried him most was the announcement that   Hwang would conduct clinical trials  of cloned stem cells on patients,   including a ten-year-old boy.“ "[He] planned to  put stem cells in the boy to save his nerves,  

but there was no verification what kind of side  effects there would be. He could develop an immune   response or get cancer,” he recalled. Endangering the life of a young boy   with unverified techniques was a line that  you just didn’t cross. And so on June 1st,   Ryu made an anonymous post to an internet message  board, claiming that Hwang’s team must have paid   for eggs, and that there was a good chance that  the paper was fake. The message board belonged  

to a well known TV network, MBC, which hosted  the program Producer’s Notebook. PD Notebook is   an award winning investigative reporting show).  Among its most well known stories are exposing an   illegal government surveillance operation that  landed the head of the intelligence service in   jail, as well as prompting widescale protests  against the import of US beef. I don’t know  

why beef keeps coming up in this story,  it just does. But before both of those,   PD Notebook took on Dr. Woo Suk Hwang. And  out of all the stories they reported on,   it was this one that nearly ruined them. The reporter who received the anonymous   tip was Han Haksu, and he worked with Ryu over  nearly 5 months to investigate the story that   Ryu was telling them. Ryu provided them with  names, donation records and even an email   conversation with Park saying that Hwang had  pressured her to donate. Hwang had allegedly   even accompanied her to the hospital. As for the  fraud suspicion? He didn’t have any hard evidence,  

it was just a hunch. So PD Notebook started  searching for other potential Whistleblowers.   They managed to find a second whistleblower  willing to talk. Later they found a third.   None of the three whistleblowers had worked on the  2005 paper, but all three of them suspected that   something was off. With their help PD Notebook  started pulling at loose threads, and 5 months   later they had uncovered a terrifying picture. Hwang had claimed publicly, repeatedly, that all  

eggs used in his research were donated voluntarily  by women who knew exactly what the research was   for. But PD Notebook found that this wasn’t the  case. Ryu provided PD Notebook with the identities   of some of the donors. PD Notebook tracked down  some of the women to ask them how and why they   donated. One of the donors said that she donated  through an egg bank she found through the internet   called DNA-bank. Except she didn’t donate because  she wanted her eggs used for Hwang’s research,   rather DNA-bank’s website had photos of  couples who were infertile and couldn’t   conceive a child on their own. She had only  donated because she wanted to help a couple.  

When she was told what her eggs were actually  used for, she was shocked and embarrassed.  On the other hand multiple women admitted  that they only donated because they were   offered money by the egg-broker. One donor said  she used the money to afford a mobile phone.   Another donor said she recently had her house  repossessed and auctioned off. This suggested   a pattern that lower income women, young, most  often in their 20s, were being exploited for   their eggs. The payment they got? Just $1400.  Barely enough to make a month or two of rent.  As PD Notebook interviewed more and more donors,  another frightening trend was emerging. Around 20%   of the donors were experiencing unexpected side  effects from their surgeries. An egg extraction  

surgery can lead to complications including  bleeding, and infection, which if untreated   can be fatal. Some donors experienced stomach  pains, queasiness and some couldn’t keep food   down. Others complained of having trouble getting  pregnant. One donor had trouble breathing for   days and had to be hospitalized. All these  donors had one thing in common. They hadn’t   been properly informed of the potential risks  before donating. There was no informed consent.  It seems that DNA-bank was one of several  illegal egg brokers who promised women money   in exchange for donating their eggs. They would  send the donors to places like Mizmedi hospital   for their surgeries, one of the labs affiliated  with Hwang’s team. The doctors performing the  

surgeries seemed unaware of where the eggs were  being sent, but told PD Notebook that one of the   hospitals directors was in charge. That director  was Roh Sung-il, a respected fertility expert,   and…get this, the 2nd author on the 2005  paper. That was the link to Hwang. When   confronted, Roh Sung-il admitted to supplying  eggs to Hwang, not just for the 2005 paper,   but the 2004 paper as well. He confessed to  illegally paying for the eggs, but swore that   Hwang was unaware of this fact. Why exactly his  name was left off the 2004 paper is unclear.  It was looking like the sheer scale of this  operation was much bigger than anyone could   have predicted. Together both of Hwang’s papers  said they only used around 400 eggs, and yet PD   Notebook estimated at least 600 eggs had been  illegally paid for. The actual number could  

be far higher. This lie cast fundamental doubts  about the papers, because part of the breakthrough   was how few eggs they had used. What this really  showed was that there was a significant human cost   to the research that was being swept under the  rug, either by Hwang, or someone working for him.  Although extremely troubling, the illegal  buying and selling of eggs was still not the   most ethically dubious accusation against Hwang.  There was still the unsettled matter of whether  

he had coerced his own grad students to donate  their eggs. PD Notebook first reached out to David   Cyranoski, the original source of the accusation,  and he provided them with the names of the two   researchers. The two egg donors from his lab  were later identified as Koo Ja Min, and Park Eul   Soon. Both women were coauthors on the 2004 paper.  PD Notebook attempted to interview them both,   but were rebuffed. One of the researcher’s husband  stonewalled them and told them to speak to Hwang,   and the other was too afraid to tell them  anything out of fear for their safety. David  

Cyranoski however had told them what hospital the  donation had supposedly taken place at. Again,   it was Mizmedi hospital. Their records  confirmed that Park had donated her eggs.   Hwang could deny knowing this all he wanted,  but the facts painted him in a terrible light.   If the papers were lying about how many  eggs were used, they could easily be lying   about other things too. The 2005 paper  was a fraud. They just had to prove it. The first and most obvious question to ask, was  who had seen the stem cells? The 2005 paper had   25 authors, and PD Notebook began by simply asking  each of them what they had done for the papers.  

The answers they got were surprising. Many they  spoke to said they had no direct involvement with   the papers, and told them to speak to Dr. Hwang  himself. It was looking like almost half of the   junior authors had never seen the stem cells. PD  Notebook gradually went up the chain of command,  

and spoke to the more senior authors. Roh Sung-Il  was the 2nd author on the paper, and again has   already admitted to paying for eggs and he said  he never saw the stem cell lines personally. The   2nd author on the paper, had never seen the stem  cells! That’s a little shocking. Next was the big  

American fish, Gerald Schatten, who had this,  frankly, quite embarrassing response. "I don't   really remember. You must understand that when I  come to Korea I leave my brain somewhere over the   pacific ocean because it is 12 hours difference.  I can't tell you if I saw 8 out of the 11, all 11,   or even all 12 because I recall seeing  the original one from the first paper."  So maybe the better question  is, where are the stem cells,   right now? They had to exist somewhere, because  Hwang had been granted patents for his work,   which would only be allowed if he deposited the  stem cells in an internationally registered cell   bank. PD Notebook managed to track down the cells  used in the 2004 paper, but were not able to find   any for the 2005 paper. It was beginning to look  like the second set of stem cells never existed.  

The major claim of the 2005 paper was that Hwang’s  team had created 11 stem cell lines, each of which   corresponded to a specific patient’s DNA. So  of course as part of the paper, they included   genetic testing that confirmed the stem cells  matched the patients. So that meant that whichever   lab did the DNA testing would have had to have  seen the stem cells. But no! Hwang hadn’t sent  

the stem cells to the DNA testers, he had just  sent two samples of DNA, one from the patient,   and one of which he claimed was extracted from  the stem cells. This is meaningless on its own,   because both DNA samples could just be from the  patient, so of course they would match! There   would be no way to tell. The next place to check  was the lab that had tested the immune response   of the stem cells. But as the tester explained,  they received the samples in a form that made it   impossible to verify whether they were looking  at stem cells, or just normal cells. This was a  

pattern. Two separate tests may have been faked by  using the patient’s cells instead of stem cells.  There was another place the stem cells would  have been tested. And unlike the DNA or immune   system tests, you couldn’t fake this one. Only  stem cells would pass. One way to verify that   you’ve created stem cells is to implant  them into mice. Specifically, SCID mice,  

a type of mouse that lacks an immune system. If  successful, the mice grow a benign tumour called   teratoma. This teratoma is a collection of human  cells. If you dissect it should contain multiple   types of differentiated cells, confirming that you  injected stem cells. To be clear here, teratoma   can only grow from stem cells. In Hwang’s 2005  paper he claimed that of the 11 stem cell lines,  

7 successfully formed teratoma. So at some  point, they tested on SCID mice. Where was   that lab? Someone on the team must know. PD  Notebook went back and asked the whole team,   including Hwang himself, every answer led them  down complete goose chase. Hwang would tell them  

a specific researcher was involved in the paper,  only for that researcher to say…what? I have no   idea what you’re talking about. "Have professor  Hwang, Kang, or Lee Byeong Chun ever experimented   with the SCID mice here?" "Uhh am I allowed to say  this? They never brought the mice to this lab."   "So you mean professor Hwang has never experiment  with the SCID mice?" "Never, not with the mice". 

After months of interviews they had finally found  one concrete person who had seen the stem cells.   Kim Jin-mi at Mizmedi hospital claimed that  she had run experiments on 3 of the 11 stem   cell lines, before quickly changing her story  to 2. Only 2 cell lines could be accounted for.   When looking at the 2005 paper, an obvious clue  was staring them in the face. There were pictures   of the cells. Someone had to have taken the  pictures. Who were they, and where were they? 

The answer to where, was apparently Pittsburgh,  as several of Hwang’s staff had transferred there   to work under Schatten. And the man behind  the camera they were looking for was junior   researcher Kim Sun-jong. A name I told you to  hang on to. PD Notebook flew out to interview   him and a few others. When they finally sat  down with Kim he’s visibly nervous. In the  

interview you can hear him hesitate to answer  the questions. He asks to move to a more private   area, and asks to know who tipped PD Notebook  off, which they refuse to divulge. He asks if   he’s being filmed, the interviewer does not  answer. Next, something questionable happens.  

The interviewer implies that Hwang is under  criminal investigation, which isn’t true.   The interviewer says that if Kim cooperates with  the interview it will help protect him from being   criminally investigated. Although questionable,  the underhanded interview tactics work, and Kim   finally answers what should be a simple question.  Why were there 3 published pictures of teratoma,  

but only 2 stem cell tests were ever performed?  Kim’s response wasn’t good. He said that he had   taken several copies of the teratoma pictures.  Hwang, when writing the paper, must have treated   the copies like an additional stem cell line,  inflating 2 to 3. Although bad, this could still   be explained away as a mistake, and not fraud. But Kim wasn’t done. The most damning admission   came next. "I took staining pictures of 11  stem cells with 3 lines." "Did you just say  

you made 11 stem cell pictures with only 3  lines?!" "Yes". "Who ordered you to make 11   pictures out of 3 cell lines?" "Professor Hwang  did". "Did he give you a direct order?" "Yes."  9 of the 11 stem cell lines were simply  fabricated from the data of 2. It was fraud.   But was it a total fraud? Were those final  2 legitimate stem cells? The whistleblower,   Ryu, suspected that Hwang had ordered someone at  Mizmedi hospital to use IVF to produce stem cells,   and pretend that they were from SCNT. This  was a clever plan, because SCNT and IVF stem   cells are difficult to tell apart from just  photos alone, even by experts. But remember,  

IVF uses sperm and an egg, which combine to  produce an embryo with 50% of its DNA from each.   SCNT would produce a clone, where the DNA would  100% match. The only way to tell for sure was a   DNA test. PD Notebook was going to do just that. However when they requested DNA samples from  

Hwang, he said that was unable to find them,  that he “forgot where he put them”. Hmmmmm.   Classic response. After several days of back and  forth PD Notebook threatened to go to the Sloan   Kettering Cancer Center in New York, as they had  previously been given samples of the stem cell   lines. Only when this threat was made did Hwang’s  team finally give in and provide the samples.  PD Notebook then went to two separate labs  approved by the government to run DNA analysis   on the samples, and had three independent forensic  experts analyze the results. Surprise, they didn’t   match. They were stem cells alright, but they  weren’t clones. They had him dead to rights. PD   Notebook had the story of the decade sitting in  their laps. All they needed to do was go on air.  

But first, something else happened. Gerald  Schatten had just publicly cut ties with Hwang.   The house of cards was going to fall sooner than  expected, but not in the way you might expect. November 2005. A lot of events are going  to happen in quick succession this month,   so bear with me. It’s about to get messy. PD  Notebook will end up airing their first episode   on Hwang on November 22nd. But only because  of a series of dominos that began to fall,   that ended up forcing their hand. In  early November the Korean Cyber Crime  

Investigation unit arrested the employees of  the online service DNA-BANK and several other   illegal egg brokers. This is the first major  crackdown in the country under the Bioethics   Safety Act which came into effect on January  1st. Among the labs that were linked to the   egg brokers was Mizmedi hospital, which was  very publicly linked to Hwang’s research.  Next, Gerald Schatten announces on November  12th that he is withdrawing from the World   Stem Cell hub and all collaborations with Hwang.  “I now have information that leads me to believe   [Hwang] had misled me [about the egg donation]  . . . My trust has been shaken. I am sick at  

heart.” “my decision is grounded solely on  concerns regarding (egg) donations in Hwang's   research reported in 2004.” Notice the careful  wording here. He doesn’t mention the 2005 paper,   the one he was much more involved in, nor does he  imply any fraud has taken place. He never gave the   source for where he got this new information from.  In all likelihood though it was Park Eul Soon,  

given that she had been working with him in  Pittsburgh and was herself one of the egg   donors. She would have known PD Notebook was going  to go public soon. Schatten’s withdrawal from the   World Stem Cell Hub almost immediately killed it.  International labs that had expressed interest   one by one began to withdraw their support. Schatten’s withdrawal leads to intense media   coverage that puts a lot of pressure on  Hwang and his team. Apparently it was too   much for at least one of the collaborators.  Roh Sung-Il, who we met earlier, had already   confessed on camera to PD Notebook about the egg  trading. To get ahead of the story, he holds a  

press conference 21st of November. He admits to  supplying Hwang upwards of 1200 eggs, and admits   to paying 20 egg donors $1400, but claims Hwang  was unaware of this fact. This critical blow to   Hwang is followed up just one day later with the  airing of the first part of PD Notebook’s expose.   The first episode covers many of the same  allegations that Roh Sung-Il has just admitted to,   and ends on a cliff-hanger.  Saying that part 2 would be  

covering inconsistencies in Hwang’s research. Hwang’s initial response was to claim he was   nothing more than a modest witness, he denied  any knowledge of the egg donations coming from   his lab. Cryptically he said “When your name is  heard twice it is insufficient to lower yourself   four times lower, and when your status goes up  twice you get challenged even if you become six   times more modest’.” Gonna be honest, didn't  really follow that. He stressed that he wasn’t   in this business for the money. ‘I want to remain  a pure scientist and I have refused the suggestion   of establishing a venture [capital] company’  ‘We have applied for patents but they will   belong to the government and not to our lab.” And yet in no time at all he's already done  

a 180. On the 24th the holds another press  conference. Again, he denies that he coerced   anyone to donate, and that he was entirely unaware  of the two donations from his researchers until   after the fact. But in a move that stunned the  nation, he announces that he’s resigning from   all his official posts. "I was blinded by work  and my drive for achievement." On the surface,   Hwang looks like he’s admitting defeat. But  he’s doing the opposite. He’s just made a   brilliant a tactical move to save himself.  The mass media and political network that   Hwang had cultivated for years was being  put to the test. He’s laying a trap. 

Think about what he’s just done with his  resignation. On the one hand he denies any   personal wrongdoing, and yet he chooses to self  sacrifice his career, all the while stressing just   how important his work was. He’s falling on his  sword in the most dramatic way possible knowing   that the public will be outraged, not at him,  but the people who put him in this situation.   The people who are halting his life saving stem  cell research. Unironically, the prevailing  

sentiment was that Hwang had done nothing wrong.  Out of a sample of 10,000 Koreans, 86% did not   consider ethical issues in obtaining eggs to  be a critical problem. [Yahoo Korea] Another   poll asked whether employees in a lab context can  consent to donating their eggs. A strong majority,  

72% said that it should be allowed in Korea.  [Donga Science] Even thought Hwang was accused   of breaking the law, many Koreans were ready to  forgive him. They wanted to rewrite the law that   Hwang had broken. You can’t make this stuff up. Websites in support of Hwang begin to pop up,   including the internet cafe I love Hwang  Woo-suk. Although we don’t know about every site,   this specific site was part of an astroturfing  campaign, and was set up by Yoon Tae-il,   the ex reporter that worked as Hwang’s PR man.  On the 26th hundreds of people hold a candlelight  

vigil outside the MBC headquarters in support of  Hwang, where they demand a public apology. Death   threats were sent to individual reporters.  Their message boards were swarmed with over   20,000 angry comments. The phones  lines were filled with complaints.  On the 28th Yoon Tae-Il actively calls for  PD Notebook to be cancelled, and made veiled   threats towards the producers. This whole time  PD Notebook is trying their absolute best to  

play defense. On December 2nd they hold their own  press conferences making allegations of fraud,   and ask Hwang’s team to provide DNA tests  to prove the existence of the stem cells,   and that part 2 of their show will go into further  detail. On the 3rd Hwang’s team announces that   yes, they will respond to the fraud allegations  directly in a press conference, but they never   follow up on this. Instead on the 4th of December  Hwang’s team hits back with a different tactic.  Kim Sun-jong, and another team member, Park Jong  Hyuk, gave an interview where they accused PD   Notebook of coercing them to get their interviews.  They argued that they only convinced Kim to talk   by using a hidden camera and insinuating that  Hwang was going to soon going to be arrested.   The media latches on to this point aggressively,  ignoring the allegations of fraud against Hwang   and muddling the otherwise factual reporting of  PD Notebook. These allegations of coercion make  

the public furious, and just 6 hours later MBC  issues an official apology. All 12 advertisers   for the program pull their ads. Crumbling under  pressure from shareholders, in the following days   MBC suspends the showrunner and the main reporter  for the case. Finally on the 7th PD Notebook is   effectively pulled off the air. Part 2 of the  expose simply will not be shown to the public.  All the while this is happening, the identity  of Ryu, and one of the other whistleblowers,   is made public. Reporters end up swarming the  hospitals they work at, and under pressure  

from their bosses, they're forced to resign.  They went into hiding for nearly 6 months,   and would have trouble finding jobs for nearly a  year. Hwang had turned the tables. He had won. How   did he do it? To understand, you need to look at  the establishment that had rallied to defend him. There are three things in Hwang’s favour here. The  media, culture, and politicians. Let’s start with   the media. When PD Notebook broke the story about  the egg donations, the reaction was split between   two camps. There were those who were angry at  Hwang for embarrassing Korea, and those who viewed  

the egg issue as an attempt by Western nations  to impose their ethical beliefs onto Koreans.   This led to a split in coverage between the more  anti-establishment, progressive media outlets, and   the more nationalist, conservative outlets. MBC,  the network that hosted PD Notebook had a well   known progressive lean, its President, and many of  their producers were political activists in their   college days, who had protested the authoritarian  government of the 1980s. Conservative outlets   hammered out stories on their coercive reporting  techniques, decrying the network’s attack on Hwang   as politically motivated and unpatriotic. Other  progressive-leaning outlets such Hankyoreh and  

Kyunghyang Shinmun came to their defense, and ran  articles criticizing the “distorted patriotism”   that surrounded Hwang, and that “Cultural  difference can be no excuse”. But this was drowned   out by the much larger and more established media  apparatus on Hwang’s side. Outlets like KBS, SBS,   JoongAng Daily and Chosun Ilbo defending Hwang’s  work and argued that the allegations were damaging   Korea’s national brand. You can sum up the  media response with this ludicrous quote   from KBS reporter Hong Sa-hoon. "The national  interest takes precedence over the truth.”  “Dong-A Ilbo, one of the major conservative  outlets in the country, published the following   editorial ‘Clash between South Korean sentiment  and Western criteria on ethics’. Their belief was  

that this was a scandal engineered by jealous  westerners trying to tear down a Korean star. Even if Hwang was guilty of what he was accused,  the public should “Give Hwang another chance”.   ‘The research must go on’. 'Encouragement is  needed rather than criticism’. An anonymous   professor was quoted saying that Westerners just  didn’t understand “our unique family-like lab   culture”. As one Buddhist monk put it: “We are  swept up in an ethical controversy which is not   based on our country’s rules but rather on foreign  rules centered on America.” And that brings us to   culture. Religion was by far the biggest factor in  the ongoing stem cell debate in the United States,  

with the President himself invoking his own  beliefs to garner the support of conservative   religious groups. Somewhere around 60% of the  US population is part of some denomination of   Christianity. In South Korea though the split is  different, with roughly about half the country   identifying as non religious, another 20% as  Buddhist, and only about 30% as either Protestant   or Catholic. As I mentioned before Hwang tied  in his personal Buddhist beliefs with his work,   framing cloning as part of the natural cycle of  death and rebirth. Certain Christian activist  

groups in Korea did voice objections to Hwang’s  work, but as Hwang himself once pointed out,   half of his own team identified as Christians. One of the defining events of the Hwang scandal   took place on December 6th. It was a  ceremony that consisted of 100 women,   who collectively represented over 1000 women, each  of whom had volunteered their eggs for Hwang’s   research on websites like They  showed up to his lab and lay a trail of flowers   up the stairs all the way to his office. The  flowers were azeleas, often used as a symbol   of the devotion of a woman’s love, and the  Rose of Sharon, the national flower of Korea.   In the words of one of the demonstrators: “I  finally made a decision to donate my eggs for   my sister who suffered from leukemia. I hope many  people participate in egg donations because it  

will help to save other people’s lives”. It’s easy  to look at this from the outside and be appalled   that so many people could still support Hwang  after all that he’d done. But at least to me,   it’s clear from statements like this that  it’s not so much Hwang the public supported,   but the future and the hope that he represented.  That by donating their eggs they could help save  

their family members, that’s the lie he sold them  on. There’s an additional factor at play here that   needs to addressed. Many of the women volunteering  their eggs were in their late 30s and 40s,   which unfortunately is too old for the types of  experiments involving stem cells. This is also   an age bracket of women, who, both in the East  and the West, are often looked down upon because   they’re viewed as “past their prime”. Many of the  letters the women wrote were self-deprecating,   using phrases like “however meagre I am”.  To quote one commentary on the scandal:  “Due to the [nuclear]-family-centered lifestyle,  Korean society shows very low tolerance of the   infertility of married women. […] Infertility  has not been understood as a difference,  

but as an abnormal deviation. Infertile women  have often been socially disgraced and described   as disabled.” With this perspective in mind  you can see why some might view donating their   eggs as a way to make up for the fact that they  weren’t able to produce children. There’s a lot   of misogyny at play here, which was evident from  the way the media covered this part of the story. 

One panelist on the popular broadcast 100 Minutes  argued that the practice of donating eggs should   be legalized, but only if A. An unmarried woman’s  parents approve of it, or B. A married woman’s   husband approves of it. That’s how bad it was.  By now the identities of the two egg donors from   Hwang’s lab had been made public as well, opening  them up to harassment. Koo Ja Min maintained that   she stood by her decision to donate, and was  glad her eggs could help potentially save lives.   Park Eul Soon on the other hand had dropped out  of the public eye as soon as Schatten denounced   Hwang. Later she applied to become a permanent  resident of the US. Some in the public began   to argue that any woman accepting money for  their eggs was dishonourable, no better than   a prostitute. Quote: “Those b*****s wanted to  sell their eggs just as they sell their body.  

It was their choice. Then why the hell blame our  professor Hwang for that? Why are they creating   all this fuss after they sold their body parts? And finally we have the politicians. On December   6th 43 politicians from multiple parties came  together to express their continued support   for Hwang, stating they would do whatever was  necessary to allow him to continue his work.   “It is absurd that journalists attempt  to re-examine professors Hwang's work.   It's not different than a simple lawmaker, like  myself, that tries to re-examine the work."

"The world renowned scientist Hwang  made the paper. And it was confirmed   and published by the world famous journal Science.   Since the magazine has accepted the paper,  who would are to reconfirm the work?"  Both the ruling and opposition parties  called for the Korean Broadcasting   Commission to investigate PD Notebook for the  alleged ethical breaches in their reporting.   Two female politicians even stated their  intention to donate eggs for his research.   The only exception among elected officials was  the left-wing Democratic Labour Party. However  

their total presence in the legislature was  fairly small, with just 10 seats out of 300.  On the 27th The President himself weighed in  on the controversy with a mild defense of PD   Notebook. “I also feel MBC's program was annoying.  But after I saw MBC's program battered en masse,   I felt heavy-hearted.” "Reporters have work to  do. A society that acknowledges and respects   them is a democratic society." But later on the  5th his office issued the following statement:  

"We'll continue to support Professor Hwang. We  hope he will return to his research lab soon for   the sake of people with physical difficulties and  the public”. By and large Hwang received a unified   wall of support from the political establishment. Let’s be clear here though, Koreans are not a  

monolith. There were in fact many organizations  that publicly criticized Hwang’s research,   even before the allegations about the egg donors  came out. The Korean Bioethics commission,   The Center for Democracy in Science and  Technology, several women’s rights organizations,   independent journalists online, and the occasional  scientist who felt bold enough to speak out   against Hwang. But for the average Korean they  were almost certain to never hear about any of   these criticisms because they were inundated day  in and day out by praise from the media giants. 

Many of Hwang’s critics often felt unsafe  voicing their concerns, here’s one activist   describing their experience: “Around the time  after the second [paper] announcement the social   mood was so serious that I felt as if I may be  attacked due to my activity, because Professor   Hwang had become a hero to Koreans. I mean not  just cyber terror or protest by telephone but   physical terror like being pelted with stones.” If the only allegations against Hwang were the   illegally acquired eggs, who knows what  would have happened. PD Notebook had   only aired part 1 of their expose, and hadn’t  been able to share their fraud allegations in   full before getting cancelled. It looked  like that was the crushing end to the saga.  

But then, at 5:28 AM on the 5th of December, an  anonymous post is made to an online message board.   And the title read “The show must go on.” BRIC is a forum normally meant for  biology graduates looking for jobs,   but on the 5th of December all anyone  could talk about was Hwang. And the post   made at 5 in the morning had found something  interesting. Images. Duplicates of images.  Stem cell lines that should be completely  unrelated, used the same photos.  

Cells that should be from completely different  cell lines were seen in the corner of others.   Some photos were simply copy-pasted.  Some were zoomed, some were stretched,   but they were undoubtedly the same photos. Both the Korean and foreign press began reporting   on these duplicate images on December 6th.  Reportedly Hwang issued a correction to Science on   the 4th. So it’s likely he realized the duplicates  issue around this time too, and sent a panicked   revision. It was too late though, the accusations  had reached critical mass. On the 7th of December,  

Hwang decides to self hospitalize himself, citing  stress, exhaustion and overwork. Still though,   he apparently felt well enough for TV crews  to film him and his scruffy little beard.   Look at him. He is visited by politicians at  his bedside, including the region’s Governor,   and two future presidents. Both of whom I  might add, were later convicted of bribery,  

embezzlement, and influence peddling. He  has a very particular taste in friends.  This move marked a bit of a turning point.  Many of Hwang’s supporters saw these visits   as nothing more than photo-ops, it was seen as too  politician-like. An emotional response from a man   who was supposed to be a logical man of science.  Why not convince his critics with evidence,   data? Why are you laying in bed? His overuse of  nationalistic rhetoric had become stale. On the  

8th 30 junior professors sign a letter to the  SNU president demanding an investigation into   Hwang. On the 9th, Science officially changes  it position and asks that Hwang and Schatten to   have a 3rd party verify their results. On the  12th Hwang is discharged from the hospital,   and SNU forms a 9 person investigative committee. Seeing the walls closing in, Roh Sung Il   a holds press conference on the 15th. He breaks  into tears and accused Hwang of fabricating 9   of the 11 stem cell lines, something he claims  to have had no part in. With these stunning new   revelations, public favour aggressively swings  back in the other direction. MBC at this point  

says f*** it, and that same day shoves  PD Notebook back into their lineup with a   special 10pm airing of part 2 of their expose.  That anonymous poster had it right after all.   The show must go on. In the new episode  they air the shocking confession of Kim   Sun-jong, who says he faked the stem cell lines  at the instruction of Hwang. Their viewership   numbers more than double. The day after this  (Dec 16th) Hwang holds a press conference,   and claims that he had created 11 stem cell  lines, but a mold outbreak had accidentally   killed 9 of them, which is why he asked Kim to  duplicate the figures. It’s not a full confession,   he still claims he created stem cells at one  point, but it’s viewed as a huge blow to his   credibility. This is the turning point where  even the hardliners in the media who had been  

supporting him switch their coverage, and begin  reporting on him in a much more critical light.  Up until this point all the fraud accusations  concerned the 2005 paper, but during SNU’s   investigation they also found evidence that the  2004 paper was not genuine either. In particular,   an embryo derived from one donor was mistakenly  labelled as being from a different donor,   but besides this mistake, this cell line  had its DNA testing faked. Furthermore the   photos of this cell line were replaced in the  final paper with better photos of a completely   different cell line, and test results  were also changed to make it look better. SNU wraps up their investigation on January  10th, at which point they announce that *both*   papers were fraudulent, and Science proceeds  to retract them unconditionally. His stamp was  

immediately removed from circulation, and his  title of supreme scientist was revoked. This   was followed by the resignation of science  advisor Park Ky Young, who also happened to   be one of the coauthors on the 2004 paper. In the  aftermath, several politicians admitted that Hwang   had made donations to their political campaigns. That same day PD Notebook has another victory lap,   and they air a new episode: In it they investigate  Hwang’s early cloning attempts with his cows and   tigers. What they find is a suspicious lack of  record keeping. No DNA testing, missing samples,   and witness testimonies alleging that  some cows were mislabelled as clones,   and some tiger surrogates weren’t even pregnant.  Not enough evidence to fully disprove them,  

but enough to cast significant doubt. Was  Hwang’s entire career a fraud? Not entirely.   The most shocking thing, to me at least, was  that SNU’s investigation confirmed that Snuppy,   the world’s first cloned dog, was  in fact genuine. It’s bizarre.  On Jan 12th Hwang holds a press conference. There  he refused to admit he was guilty, and instead   blamed his team members for lying and attempting  to sabotage him. He begged to have 6 months   to prove once and for all that he could clone  human stem cells. But it was too late for him.   Government prosecutors raided his home that day to  collect evidence. As Hwang still refuses to admit  

his guilt, his most hard-core fans continue  to protest. One incident involved protestors   physically beating SNU’s research director,  but the worst incident was when a truck driver   burned himself alive in protest. For the most  fanatical of Hwang’s ever dwindling supporters,   they were clinging on to the idea that Hwang  was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy. A   conspiracy to smear Hwang’s good name and steal  stem cell technology that belonged to Korea. 

These conspiracies ranged from being  anti-Japanese, anti-American, and lots   of anti-Semitic rhetoric aimed at Schatten in  particular. Considering that Hwang’s closest   American collaborator went on to denounce him,  and many of Hwang’s team would later transfer to   Pittsburgh, it’s easy to see why an anti-american  conspiracy was popular. If this feels familiar,   let’s not forget the earlier story of Benjamin  Lee. A successful Korean scientist who was quote   unquote “brought down” by the American empire.  America has a lot to answer for with respect to  

Korea, but Hwang’s downfall is not one of them. The saga finally calmed down on March 6th,   when Hwang publicly admits that he ordered two  researchers to fake data in his 2005 paper. His   license to practice stem cell research was revoked  later that month and he’s fired as a professor on   the 20th. The ball was no longer in SNU’s court.  On May 12th Hwang was officially indicted on the  

charges of fraud, embezzlement, and a violation  of the Bioethics Act. The trial would be a long   one. 3 years and 4 months. 43 separate hearings,  60 witnesses, and 20,000 pages of documents. Many, many people were charged during the  investigation. Ultimately though only a   handful were convicted. Although Roh Sung-il had  purchased eggs for use in Hwang’s experiments,  

the investigation found that all of the paid eggs  had been supplied before January 1st 2005, which   was the day the Bioethics Act came into effect.  Mizmedi hospital stopped all illegal egg payments   after that date. The illegally paid for eggs that  Hwang was charged with came from a completely   different hospital. The only person convicted  of selling eggs was an obstetrician at the Ha

2023-05-11 19:00

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