Only none of it was true. Beginning in May 2004, reports started trickling in that Hwang had used unethical means to obtain eggs for his cloning research and lied about it. By December 2005, it became clear that the deception was much more wide ranging. Hwang’s human-cloning research, it seemed, was a spectacular fraud: investigators from Hwang’s university found no evidence that his team had created cloned stem cell lines at all.
“It was like watching a car wreck taking place in slow motion. The magnitude of the problem was just really horrifying,” says Snyder. “The world had been reset to pre-2004, like when Superman turned the world backwards. If you were pursuing cloning in 2004, you began pursuing it again. If you were sitting on the sidelines, you were back sitting on the sidelines.”
But some researchers couldn’t turn back the clock. In the months since Hwang had made his announcement, ACT’s investors had lost interest in producing patient-specific stem cells, and scientists at the company were now focusing on developing less risky stem cell therapies. “We were perceived as a failure, when in fact we were the furthest ahead,” says Lanza, vice president of medical and scientific development at ACT. “We had lost a year of work and moved on to other things.”
“The real work suffered because this guy was playing some game,” Lanza continues. “I know I will be criticized for saying this, but I truly believe we had a protocol that would have been reproducible and straightforward, and we could have started on therapies by now.”
Six months after the details of the fraud began emerging, Lanza and groups at Harvard University and the University of California, San Francisco, among others, are gearing up to start new programs to clone stem cells from adult donor cells – a process usually called somatic-cell nuclear transfer or therapeutic cloning. Despite the technical and political hurdles, the scientists are convinced that nuclear transfer will have a huge impact on medicine. Most immediately, they believe, cloned stem cells could be used as models in which to study human disease and test new drugs with unprecedented accuracy; eventually, stem cells could be transplanted directly into patients to cure degenerative diseases.
The Korean fraud, while clearly devastating for Lanza, may have inadvertently galvanized the field. “The Hwang episode was very destructive,” says Ronald Green, an ethicist at Dartmouth College. “But Hwang’s claims gave people a glimpse of what would be possible with cloned stem cells, and the consequence was a renewed interest in therapeutic cloning.”
Scientists who had planned to collaborate with Hwang had spent months thinking seriously about what they could do with cloned stem cells, from creating new tools to shed light on the diseases they had studied for decades to investigating new treatments. The excitement those possibilities aroused, along with new influxes of cash from state and private sources, made many unwilling to wait on the sidelines any longer. Snyder, a pediatric neurologist and neonatologist who wants to develop new treatments for his patients, is now considering starting his own cloning program. “There is more of a readiness to get into this area, and I think that will carry over,” he says.