Field of Science

Can you patent a fraudulent stem cell method? Yes!

Woo-Suk Hwang talks to reporters after
fraud is revealed. Photo: Reuters.
At first I thought the Patent Office was having a little fun. Was it an April Fools Day joke?  No, it's only February - and the U.S. Patent Office never kids around.

What did they do? They issued a patent to Korean scientist Woo-Suk Hwang for a method to create human embryonic stem cells by cloning.  The problem is, Hwang's "invention" was one of the most famous frauds of the past decade. His publications in 2004 and in 2005, in the journal Science, are labelled in bright red letters as retracted, and Science wrote its own separate notice explaining
"the authors of two papers published in Science (23) have engaged in research misconduct and that the papers contain fabricated data."
Hwang's apparent triumph, becoming the first scientist to create human embryonic stem cells in the lab, made him a national hero in South Korea, for a short time.  He was soon appointed the director of a new stem cell research center. But things quickly unraveled beginning in November 2005, when Hwang's co-author Gerald Schatten, a stem cell researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, announced that he was ending his collaboration with Hwang over ethical concerns. By January, Hwang admitted to publishing fake data, but blamed his junior colleagues. Hwang was fired from Seoul National University (SNU) in 2007 and later convicted of bioethical violations and embezzlement. The official investigation by SNU found that Hwang's laboratory
"does not possess patient-specific stem cell lines or any scientific basis for claiming to have created one."
So you wouldn't think this would be approved for a patent, no?  Is the patent office paying any attention at all?  As reported by Andrew Pollack at the New York Times, the patent office does indeed know Hwang's history, and the patent is 
"definitely not an assertion by the U.S. government that everything he is claiming is accurate."
Well, I must say I'm relieved to hear that. Hwang himself admitted the data were fake! As I've written previously, the USPTO simply can't keep up with biotechnology, and the courts don't do any better. In this case, it's hard to imagine a more obvious example of a patent that should be denied: the papers were retracted, and the lead scientist lost his job after his own university concluded that the data was fabricated. And yet the patent office is standing by their decision. What are they thinking?

1 comment:

  1. You apparently don't know how patents work. The invention, improvement to an existing technology, etc. being patented does not have to be demonstrated to work (or demostrated at all, for that matter). All that is needed for a patent is a documented schematic, process, etc., but such documentation never has to be demonstrated as viable. For example, there are several patents existing for such non-working/non-existing technologies as anti-gravity devices, perpetual energy generators, and so on. The USPTO has every reason to stand by their decision because the process or technology in the patent application being submitted by Hwang was not in violation of (i.e. represented by) a previously issued patent. The USPTO is not the same as the USDA, so they aren't involved in any way with determining the efficacy of a method (even one already known to be fraudulent). So, in response to your closing remarks, it's not hard at all to imagine a more obvious example of a patent application that should be denied because this one should not have been.


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