KOREA: MBC apologizes for stem cell coercion

Broadcaster issues apology, explaining investigation intended to increase standards of embryonic cell research

The Korea Times
Sunday, December 4, 2005

By Kim Tae-gyu and Lee Hyo-shik

MBC-TV, one of the nation's three major broadcasters, on Sunday apologized for the unethical conduct of its producers of an investigative program as they reported suspicions concerning Prof. Hwang Woo-suk's stem cell research.

The broadcaster admitted to violating its own ethics rules while the producers of the investigative program, "PD Notebook," were gathering information unfavorable to Hwang from his junior staffers in the United States.

The apology came at the start of its main news program "News Desk 9."

"We have confirmed that our producers clearly violated ethics rules required by journalists when they were gathering information on Hwang's stem cell research. We offer an apology to the public for the misconduct," the broadcaster said in a statement.

It said that the investigative program's intention was to help build high ethical standards for Korea's embryonic stem cell research.

"Using coercive measures to obtain information is a clear violation of not only ethics, rules but also MBC's broadcasting principles. We will get to the bottom of the case and hold those responsible to account," MBC said.

MBC's apology came after the all-news cable channel YTN reported an interview with the "feeder" cell expert Kim Son-jong who claimed that MBC coerced him into providing information revealing that Hwang's stem cell exploits were fraudulent.

"MBC producers visited me on Oct. 20 and insisted Hwang's research is all fake and his two papers published by Science will be canceled. They even said Hwang will be arrested," said Kim Son-jong, a feeder cell expert who is now at the University of Pittsburgh.

"Then they said a police investigation would start in the United States and urged me to reveal everything I know saying that doing so would protect me from the probe," he added.

Late last week, MBC producers of "PD Notebook" claimed that Hwang's cloned embryonic human stem cells might not be authentic.

The producers told a press conference that they had a research institute, IDGene, test 15 stem cell samples provided by Hwang's team twice and learned one of the sample's DNA does not match its donor.

Asking Hwang to carry out a second round of tests to clear away all suspicions, MBC producer Han Hak-soo said last week that he got a crucial confession in Pittsburgh, but Kim flatly rebuffed that.

"They continued to claim that there are no (patient-specific human embryonic stem) cells so I made it clear that there are. After double-checking it from Seoul, I called Han and confirmed it again," Kim said.

Kim contended MBC duped him and his two Korean colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh into accepting the interview, believing the TV network was making a documentary.

"MBC even did not let us know that the broadcaster recorded the interview. After knowing that, I asked it not to air the interview, but it refused the request," Kim said.

MBC reiterated the TV station would reveal everything on the air tomorrow night on its program "PD Notebook."

Kim and two other researchers are now under professor Gerald Schatten at the University of Pittsburgh, who pulled out of the 20-month-old partnership with Hwang last out of ethical concerns.

Kim said he reported all the contents of the interview with MBC to Schatten and that event appears to be the major cause for Schatten to sever ties with Hwang.

Hwang became a global cloning superstar through back-to-back exploits of establishing the first cloned human embryonic stem cells in 2003 and patient-specific stem cells this year, both published as cover stories in the U.S. journal Science.

However, the integrity of his study came under fire after MBC last month accused Hwang of having used the eggs from of junior staffers.

Hwang admitted the allegations are true on Nov. 24 and resigned from all posts to take a responsibility for it, including the chairmanship of the world stem cell bank that opened October to give embryos for global scientists.

Then he left his lab inside Seoul National University since then. According to his underlings, Hwang is expected to return to his lab this week and hold a press conference.

MBC comes under siege

By Kim Tae-gyu

Korea's terrestrial TV network MBC is under siege as the nation's embittered cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk and his colleagues make an all-out onslaught on the broadcaster.

In an interview with the all-news cable channel YTN, the feeder cell expert Kim Son-jong on Sunday claimed MBC blackmailed him to provide information revealing that Hwang's stem cell exploits are fraud.

Kim also said he did not make any comments unfavorable to Hwang, negating MBC producers' claim last week that Kim made a crucial confession regarding the authenticity of Hwang's research.

The biologist worked for Hwang for this year's medical breakthrough in getting cloned human embryonic stem cell lines and is now at the University of Pittsburgh.

Professor Kang Sung-keun from Seoul National University, Hwang's right-hand man, also launched an attack on MBC and its DNA tests on five stem cell lines genetically tailored to patients.

"We gave five feeder cells from a single mouse to MBC. Then the tests of the TV network showed all of the feeder cells have different DNA structures. That means the test is full of mistakes and we can't accept it," Kang said.

In response, MBC countered that Kang's remarks are contradictory to those of Hwang.

"When Hwang handed over stem cell samples to us, he said the feeder cells were human cells free of concerns triggered by animal feeder layers," MBC producer Han Hak-soo said.

Feeder cells play a pivotal role in preventing embryonic stem cells from growing into specific cells, a process needed to obtain human stem cell batches.

Hwang's team used human feeder cells to acquire the customized stem cell batches this year, a landmark achievement compared to conventional ways of depending on mouse feeder cells.

Animal feeder cells are associated with risks such as viral infection or pathogen transmission, making human feeder cells a must for the eventual application of cell replacement therapy.

"We used human feeder cells for our paper this year announced by Science in May but provided mouse feeder layers to MBC, which are more suitable for DNA trials," Kang said.

Under this rationale, Kang contended the examinations of MBC lack credibility since the broadcaster failed to repeat results in further tests.

In a telephone interview with a local media over the weekend, Hwang also said, "I swear my stem cell research is absolutely true at the risk of my life."

Late last week, MBC producers who broadcast an investigative program, "PD Notebook," claimed Hwang's customized stem cells might be inauthentic.

The producers told a press conference that they had a research institute, IDGene, test 15 stem cell samples provided by Hwang's team twice and learned one sample's DNA does not match with that of a somatic cell donor.

However, IDGene could not verify DNA profiles in the remainders of the 30 samples for some reason.

This is the climate in which Han keeps on asking Hwang's team to conduct a second test to scrutinize doubts, a requirement refused by Hwang who takes issue with the credibility of research agencies.

"There is an easiest and simplest way to iron our all the kinks; carrying out the second test that would take a couple of days. That will dispel all questions -- so Hwang must accept the offer," Han said.

Meanwhile, Roh Sung-il, the head of Mizmedi Women's Hospital that procured eggs for Hwang, postponed for a few days a press meeting initially scheduled for yesterday. The meeting is intended to clarifying all misgivings.

Roh quoted the necessity to fine tune his stance on specific issues but insiders say Hwang, whose whereabouts have been unknown since late last month, would host a press conference himself soon, after MBC airs the program to delve into suspicions on his research.

MBC is expected to show it on Tuseday.

Hwang became a global cloning icon via medical feats of establishing the first cloned human embryonic stem cells in 2003 and customized stem cells this year. Both were featured as a cover story in Science, the U.S.-based peer-reviewed journal.

However, the integrity of his study came under fire after MBC last month accused Hwang of recruiting eggs from his junior staffers.

Hwang admitted the allegations are true on Nov. 24 and resigned from all posts including chairmanship of the world stem cell bank that opened October to provide global scientists with embryos.

He then left his lab inside Seoul National University leaving his whereabouts, a press conference schedule, and when he will return to the lab uncertain.