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U.S. Scientist Questions Korean Stem-Cell Research

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

For the past month, controversy has swirled around a landmark scientific paper published earlier this year. The paper showed for the first time how to use cloning techniques to make stem cells from specific patients. The South Korean scientists who wrote the paper have had to confess that there were ethical lapses in the way some of the work was conducted. And today in a stunning development, an American co-author asked that his name be removed from the paper because he believes certain elements were fabricated. NPR's Joe Palca joins us to talk about this.

And, Joe, before we talk about the details of today's announcement, remind us of why this paper's considered to be so important

JOE PALCA reporting:

Well, this paper showed that it was more than just theoretically possible; it was actually possible to take cells from a patient--let's say someone with Parkinson's, if you want to study that--take a skin cell, remove the nucleus of the skin cell, put it into a woman's egg, make an embryo and derive stem cells that would be identical to the Parkinson's patient that you started with. And those stem cells, those embryonic stem cells, are thought to hold a wealth of information about the disease, about the disease process and possibly for therapies for the disease.

BLOCK: And now to today's news. Who is this American scientist, and why is he asking that his name be removed?

PALCA: Well, his name is Gerald Schatten, and he's at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. And he's a co-author on the paper; he's, in fact, the senior author, which is a title for the last author, generally. And what he said a couple weeks ago is he thought that there were ethical lapses in the way eggs were retrieved from the women who donated their eggs for the cloning process. But now he said--in a statement, he said over the weekend that he had received allegations from someone involved in the experiment that certain elements may be fabricated. And specifically, there have been charges that some of the pictures in the paper might have been doctored, or they might be of the same cell instead of two different cells, which would detract from the evidence in the paper.

BLOCK: Well, how...

PALCA: And he's also--he's written to his co-authors and said the paper should be retracted.

BLOCK: Well, how does this work, Joe? I mean, if he's a co-author on this paper, wouldn't he have realized ahead of time that there were problems with the paper before it was published?

PALCA: Well, I talked to the dean of the Pittsburgh Medical School just a few minutes ago, and he said, `You might think that.' And basically, that's the problem. I mean, Dr. Schatten is in a very embarrassing position because he put his name on a paper, but he has to--it is the case that the research was all done in Korea, and it was all done mostly when he wasn't present. And his role was mostly in presenting the paper, getting the data together, helping to design the language in which it was explained in the scientific paper. And now he's saying, several months later, after the paper was published, `Oh, now this information is coming to my attention, and I want my name taken off of it,' and he's asking his co-authors to do the same, to retract the paper.

BLOCK: Well, where does this leave the research itself then? Is it discredited?

PALCA: Well, it's certainly--these are serious charges, and Science magazine, where the paper was published, has asked the Koreans for an explanation of what's happened--the Korean scientists at Seoul National University. But Science is taking the position that one author cannot simply say, `I'm stepping back,' and they want a clear statement from all the parties concerned.

Now the Korean scientists, for their part, are having the Seoul National University do an investigation, but at least so far, in all their public statements, they have said, `Yes, we know there were problems.' They've admitted some errors in the way particular figures were labeled. But they're saying, `The science is accurate, and, you know, we've--you can investigate us and you'll see that we have done what we said we did.'

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Joe Palca, thanks very much.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
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