The Scientific Activist

The U.S. Office of Research Integrity announced this week that it has found a former postdoc in Gerald Schatten’s lab, Park Jong Hyuk, guilty of research misconduct for falsifying images in a manuscript on deriving embryonic stem cells from cloned rhesus monkeys. Although the paper had not yet been submitted for peer review, this is more bad news for Schatten, who has been dealing with the fallout from being a senior author on one of the papers later determined to have been fabricated by discredited South Korean researcher Hwang Woo Suk.

The AP reports:

The latest university probe showed Park had misrepresented photographic images of embryonic stem cells derived from rhesus monkeys in a manuscript being prepared for the journal Nature, Rossi said. The report was never submitted for publication.

Park, who returned to his native South Korea last year, intentionally and knowingly falsified images in the manuscript and a similar one in its supplemental materials, the probe found. Rossi declined to elaborate.

Because of the university’s findings, the federal Office of Research Integrity determined Park had tried to destroy evidence and made false statements to the university’s research integrity panel.

The Pitt investigation was conducted over three months early last year, but the findings were not disclosed until recently because the Office of Research Integrity had not completed its own review.

The University of Pittsburgh panel announced in February 2006 that it had found Schatten guilty of the lesser (and more ambiguous) charge of “research misbehavior”. Schatten was not found to have directly participated in any fraud, but he had not exerted the proper scientific oversight that his role in the project warranted, possibly influenced by the large amount of scientific prestige he stood to gain from the project.

Despite these findings, his lab is still confident that it has in fact isolated stem cells from cloned rhesus monkey embryos, according to another report. Regardless, the lab has taken the mature route of deciding to repeat these experiments before submitting the paper that before contained the falsified images.

The Valley Independent reports:

University of Pittsburgh researchers are fairly confident they have generated embryonic stem cells from cloned monkeys, a feat that could put science once step closer to creating human stem cells to treat diseases and propel the university to the forefront of the international cloning field.

Pitt’s findings, confirmed Wednesday by a university spokeswoman, have not been examined and verified by independent scientists, a crucial step toward determining their validity….

“The team is fairly confident in the scientific findings,” Pitt spokeswoman Lisa Rossi said yesterday.

But the scientific team has opted to repeat all of the experiments that produced the stem cell lines from the cloned monkeys in order to obtain new data and scientific verification without involvement from Park, Rossi said.

She did not know when the new research would be completed and cautioned it has not been submitted for peer review.

“This work represents a major scientific finding, but it has not yet been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal,” Rossi said.

Hopefully, their results will prove to be repeatable, as this would help vindicate the now embattled Schatten. As it stands right now, though, Schatten is still something of a wild card, having been convicted of “research misbehavior”–but not outright fraud or misconduct–and having had some–but not all–of his papers investigated by a university panel. In particular, Schatten published one paper with Hwang in 2004 in Developmental Biology on the cloning of rhesus monkeys, but the University of Pittsburgh panel declined to investigate it. Although there have not been any allegations of fraud related to this particular paper, anything that Schatten can do to prove himself will go a long way toward vindicating him and helping the field of embryonic stem cell research continue to rise out of the slump it experienced as a result of Hwang’s fraud.

In the meantime, we’ll have to wait with bated breath for Schatten’s lab to reproduce its results, as the isolation of stem cells from cloned monkey embryos would help pave the way toward applying the same techniques (with all of their therapeutic potential) to humans….

For real this time.