Monday, January 09, 2006

Time for a Stem Cell Sunshine Vaccine

The international scientific conference that was sponsored last fall by the California stem cell agency had an interesting sidelight that is now surfacing in the Korean research scandal.

It was in San Francisco at the time of the conference that Gerald Schatten, the University of Pittsburgh scientist who co-authored the fraudulent Korean stem cell paper, met with Hwang Woo-suk and asked for a 50 percent share of the patent, according to Merrill Goozner, director of the Integrity in Science project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Hwang rejected Schatten's request. About six weeks later Schatten publicly broke with Hwang, helping to set in motion a string of events that culminated in Hwang's disgrace.

The rejected request by Schatten has been reported previously (Nov. 29), although we had not seen the location of the meeting. But as Goozner notes, it has received little notice in American media. Goozner also points to a story on Saturday by reporter Jennifer Bails of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who wrote that Schatten "is seeking to patent technology to create embryonic stem cells without crediting his now-estranged colleagues in South Korea."

The 50-percent request is not the only allegation about Schatten that has received little scrutiny. Totally overlooked by most newspapers was a report Dec. 16 by Associated Press writer Paul Elias. He wrote that Schatten, who was listed as "senior author" on the Hwang paper, could also become a victim of the Korean scandal.

"At the very least, Schatten faces a formal reprimand once an internal school investigation is concluded," Elias said.

He quoted Arthur Levine, dean of Pitt medical school, as saying:
"One should only be the senior author of a scientific paper when one has prepared and was responsible for all the data in that paper. It also implies the senior author is the chief of the lab where the experiment took place."

Other allegations concerning Schatten have also received short shrift in this country. They include aKorean statement that Hwang rejected Schatten's request to serve as chair of the once-vaunted World Stem Cell Hub. Hwang also reportedly rejected a Schatten request for a payment of $200,000 to help start the US operations of the World Stem Cell Hub, according to Digital Chosun.

Schatten and Pitt have generally not responded to the allegations. Pitt is conducting its inquiry behind closed doors, a process Goozner called outrageous.

Bails wrote:
"The rush to file biomedical patents for early-stage technologies creates roadblocks to research that do a disservice to the public by requiring scientists to dish out licensing money whenever they have an idea that might be worth pursuing, Goozner said.
"'It sets up arbitrary financial roadblocks to research,' Goozner said. 'We need new systems that make these technologies open to all scientists at the lowest possible price, and when the government funds them, it should be the government insisting that's how they are managed.'"

In his blog, Goozner wrote that Hwang was also attempting to patent the same research without mentioning Schatten.
"Ownership disputes over key stem cell patents have been simmering since the field emerged in the late 1990s. The University of Wisconsin, whose researcher James Thomson used Geron Corp. funding to isolate the first embryonic stem cell lines, charges $100,000 to commercial concerns and $5,000 to academics for access to those lines. It also granted Geron exclusive rights to pursue therapies in the most promising fields. Last May, San Diego-based stem cell researcher Jeanne Loring told Nature magazine her start-up firm collapsed because it couldn’t get access to the Wisconsin patents at reasonable rates," Goozner said.
In the case of Hwang, however, one wonders why someone would want to patent bogus research results.

Aside from the San Francisco meeting between Hwang and Schatten, what does all this have to do with CIRM? Much of it goes right to the point of the hottest issues before CIRM this year. The agency, as well as the legislature, is in the midst of wrestling with the question of ownership of state-funded research results and sharing access to those results. The fallout is likely to build support for more sharing rather than less. The Korean scandal also reminds us that the stakes are huge and people are tempted by riches and fame. It tells us that more disclosure is better than less about the economic interests of those associated with the $3 billion California effort. Call disclosure a kind of sunshine vaccine. Without some protections such as could be provided by a pending state constitutional amendment, the CIRM program would not likely survive a scandal of even a fraction of the magnitude of the Korean affair.

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