Shoukhrat Mitalipov (left), of Oregon Health & Science University and MitoGenome Therapeutics, shakes hands with Woo Suk Hwang of Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Seoul (second from right) and two others to seal a cooperative research agreement.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov (left), of Oregon Health & Science University and MitoGenome Therapeutics, shakes hands with Woo Suk Hwang of Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Seoul (second from right) and two others to seal a cooperative research ag

Boyalife

Stem cell pioneer joins forces with stem cell fraudster

The scientist who once fraudulently claimed to have created embryonic stem cells matched to human patients and the one who really did it plan to conduct joint research, a Korean newspaper reported this morning. A Chinese regenerative medicine company will provide financial support, according to the account.

The two scientists would seem an odd match. In 2006, Woo Suk Hwang had to retract two papers published in Science in which his team claimed it had used the technique employed in cloning Dolly the sheep to create human embryonic stem cells matched to specific people who had various diseases.    After investigators determined all the claims were bogus, Hwang was fired from Seoul National University and later convicted of embezzling research funds and bioethics violations. He escaped jail time with a suspended sentence. Since his downfall, Hwang has quietly continued his cloning work on animals, particularly pet dogs, at Seoul-based Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, a private institute friends established specifically for him.

Despite his claims being deemed fraudulent by a Seoul National University panel, Hwang was awarded an American patent covering his technique in February 2014. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, made a series of breakthroughs in primate stem cell research in recent years. He reported in May 2013 using the Dolly technique, known more formally as somatic cell nuclear transfer, to derive stem cells from cloned human embryos, including from a baby with an inherited disorder. More recently he has published several papers related to gene replacement to prevent inherited mitochondrial diseases. He also founded MitoGenome Therapeutics, reportedly to commercialize his work.

Hwang, in what is billed as an exclusive interview, now tells South Korea's Dong-A Ilbo newspaper that he, Mitalipov, and Xiaochun Xu, CEO of Boyalife Group of Wuxi, China, have agreed to jointly work on the mechanisms of cloning. Boyalife, which has a number of stem cell– and regenerative medicine–related research and commercial efforts, will put up about $93 million.

The newspaper says initially work will focus on animal cloning but eventually move on to work with human materials. Mitalipov's "strength is in primate stem cells. My specialty is in cell nuclear transplantation. So we've agreed that if we combine his strength with mine, we can create a breakthrough outcome in curing maternal line genetic disease, on which he is now focusing," the paper quotes Hwang as saying. Hwang said they will place their laboratory in China to avoid Korea's strict bioethics regulations. 

An official at Sooam confirmed in an e-mail that the newspaper story was accurate. A Boyalife official sent pictures indicating that a signing ceremony with Hwang and Mitalipov took place in Jeju, South Korea, on 13 January. Mitalipov has not yet replied to requests for  confirmation and comment.

Ahn Mi-Young is a freelance writer in Seoul.

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