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Revisiting the South Korean Stem-Cell Claim

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A new study suggests that a famously fraudulent piece of research may have accomplished something important after all.

In 2004, South Korean scientists electrified the scientific world by claiming they had made embryonic stem cells from a cloned human embryo. Two years later, they retracted the claim after investigators found some of their data were fabricated. Well, the research published today shows that although the South Koreans didn't do what they claimed, they did do something remarkable.

NPR's Joe Palca reports.

JOE PALCA: Before the fraud was exposed, scientists were desperate to get their hands on the South Korean stem cells. Harvard Stem Cell Institute biologist George Daley says one of the lucky few was Malcolm Moore.

About a year ago, Daley bumped into Moore at a scientific meeting in Germany. Daley says Moore was frustrated because he had done a lot of interesting work with the South Korean cells.

Dr. GEORGE DALEY (Pediatrics, Children's Hospital; Biologist, Harvard Stem Cell Institute): But was unable to publish it because, to the scientific world, the cell line essentially didn't exist.

PALCA: Once the fraud was exposed, most scientists got as far from the South Korean cells as possible.

But George Daley and some of his colleagues at Children's Hospital in Boston decided to get some of the cells and try to figure out what they really were. If the cells didn't come from a cloned human embryo, where did they come from?

Daley says one possibility was that they came from an embryo that was the product of parthenogenesis.

Dr. DALEY: In the process of parthenogenesis, you trick the egg into thinking it's being fertilized by treating it with a chemical.

PALCA: The egg starts to grow even without being fertilized by a sperm.

Dr. DALEY: It can't develop into a full organism because without the contribution of the father's genes, the developing fetus will deteriorate.

PALCA: But the embryo will grow to a stage where you can extract embryonic stem cells from it. As Daley's team reports on the journal Cell Stem Cell, that seems to be what the South Korean scientists did to get their cells.

Dr. DALEY: I think it's an unfortunate irony that they didn't know or didn't choose to represent it properly that they had produced the world's first human parthenogenetic embryonic stem cell.

PALCA: Now if these were the only time someone had produced stem cells from a parthenogenetically derived embryo, there might still be uncertainty about the claim. But earlier this summer, scientists at a private company reported that they had also accomplished the feat. Jeffrey Janus is president of International Stem Cell Corporation in Oceanside, California. He says they started with 40 donated human eggs.

Mr. JEFFREY JANUS (President, International Stem Cell Corporation): From those, we derived six lines. This is vast - a very big improvement on what was the current technology of using hundreds of eggs to try and get one stem cell line.

PALCA: The company hopes to use parthenogenetically derived embryos to make a stem cell bank that will be available to researchers and ultimately doctors hoping to use stem cells to study and someday treat diseases.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

NORRIS: You can find the timeline of key moments in the stem cell research as well as information on the potential of embryonic stem cell at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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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