A University of Pittsburgh panel has declared stem cell researcher Gerald Schatten innocent of research misconduct in the Korean stem cell debacle. But his failure to more closely oversee research with his name on it does make him guilty of "research misbehavior," according to a report released today.
In January, after the discovery of misdeeds by Korean cloning researcher Woo Suk Hwang, medical school dean Arthur Levine set up a panel of six6 senior researchers to investigate the role of Schatten, who was presented as senior author on a paper purporting to show that disease-specific cell lines had been derived using stem cells from cloned human embryos. The paper, published in Science in June, has been withdrawn.
The university panel said there is no evidence that Schatten falsified anything or that he was aware of the misconduct. However, the panel comes down hard on him for "shirk[ing]" his responsibilities when it came to assuring the veracity of the manuscript.
The report relates that Schatten and Hwang first met at a stem cell meeting in Seoul in December 2003 and developed a close relationship, which soon bore fruit for both scientists.Hwang: Schatten's behind- the- scenes "lobbying" of Science editors helped ensure the publication of a 2004 paper on the development of stem cells from a cloned human embryo that was also subsequently found to be fraudulent.
Schatten had nothing to do with the authorship of the 2004 paper. But he devoted "a tremendous amount of time and energy" to the 2005 paper, composing numerous drafts and allowing his name to appear as corresponding author. Despite this, "he did not exercise a sufficiently critical perspective as a scientist," the panel relates.
For example, Hwang told Schatten in January 2005 that some cell lines had been lost through contamination. But Schatten failed to realize from this that there was not enough time to grow and analyze new ones by 15 March when the paper was first submitted. He also failed to enassure that all 25 co-authors had approved the manuscript before submission. "We cannot rule out the possibility" that the falsifications would have been caught if this had been done, writes the panel.
The investigators suggest that Schatten's fondness for publicity may have helped landput him in his currrent predicamentosition. For example, in December, he told the panel that he had written the 2005 paper. But 3 weeks later he told investigators from Seoul National University that he had not. "[T]his appears to be part of a concerted and deliberate effort … to further distance himself from Dr. Hwang and their joint publications," the panel concluded. This it labeled "disingenuous" and "in sharp contrast to the full participation of Dr. Schatten in the media spotlight following publication of the paper."
The panel also takes a swipe at Schatten's role as a co-author on the so-called Snuppy paper, published in Nature this year, reporting on the first cloning of a dog. (That paper was confirmed to be authentic). "We have no reason to doubt [his] statement to us that his major contribution … was a suggestion that a professional photographer be engaged so that Snuppy would appear with greater visual appeal," says the report. "It is less clear that this contribution fully justifies co-authorship." The panel recommends no specific disciplinary action, only calling on the university to take action "commensurate with … research misbehavior."
No further details are available from the university, which said no officials would be available for interviews. And Schatten himself continues to maintain the silence he has held ever since he broke off his collaboration with Hwang last November. Schatten's colleagues in the stem cell world are also refraining from comment. Said Harvard University researcher George Daley: "I have nothing to say about this sad situation."