University of Pittsburgh researcher Gerald P. Schatten had worked together with South Korean researcher Woo Suk Hwang of Seoul National University in recent years on projects involving cloned human embryos to make what some scientists referred to as major breakthroughs in "therapeutic cloning" to create stem cells that were genetically matched to patients.
The research involved creating and destroying blastocysts, early stage embryos, to harvest stem cells. The stem cells would be used to regenerate tissue that could be used to heal patients. Scientists hope that embryonic stem cell research can be used to find cures for diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes as well as to heal damaged spinal cords.
Some pro-life critics of embryonic stem cell research say that because embryos are destroyed to harvest stem cells, the process is tantamount to ending a life. They proposed alternatives such as adult stem cell research, which does not involve embryos.
Researchers on the South Korean team, meanwhile, said that the method employed was different from past research and did not involve generating embryos (blastocysts) because they were not made in the traditional way by fertilizing eggs with sperm cells.
The reason Schatten says he left involves not the research itself, but how the eggs were obtained.
Researchers usually obtain eggs from women in a process that involves some modest health risks and a minor but not risk-free surgical procedure. It also requires their informed consent along with other ethical requirements.
Rumors had circulated that the eggs had been obtained by illegal payments to a junior researcher on the team. Ethical standards, including those from the U.S.-based National Academy of Sciences, preclude payments to egg donors. Other concerns include the possibility that a person in a position of authority over another could, even subtly, coerce the donor.
Schatten told the Washington Post in a Saturday report that Hwang had denied the rumor repeatedly. The U.S researcher said he had believed him until Friday but now has "information that leads me to believe he had misled me."
"My trust has been shaken. I am sick at heart. I am not going to be able to collaborate with Woo Suk," he said.
The collaboration involved setting up two major human embryo cloning labs in the United States and Britain, with South Korean scientists providing stem cell colonies for research.
Schatten told the Washington Post that the University of Pittsburgh will announce it will pull out of the project. He said he will also announce technical mistakes in a paper that he and Hwang published together this year. He said the errors were not intentional and were not to be considered scientific misconduct. Additionally, he said that he believed the science behind the paper was sound.
Hwang had not yet commented on the allegation at the time of the report.