How to catch a criminal cloner
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 ilovehwang.net. 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