Fraud, retractions no barrier to US cloning patent for Woo-Suk Hwang
The cloning researcher’s fall from grace in 2005 and 2006 was covered worldwide, featuring two high-profile retractions from Science and convictions (now under appeal) on charges he embezzled government funds and broke South Korea’s bioethics law. But as Nature reported last month in a profile focusing on Hwang’s Biotech Research Foundation:
Despite his legal troubles — and the widespread belief that his career was over — Hwang continued to work, thanks to the supporters who amassed US$3.5 million to launch Sooam. About 15 scientists followed Hwang from SNU, and around half of those remain today among Sooam’s 45 staff. His team now creates some 300 cow and pig embryos per day, and delivers about 15 cloned puppies per month.
And now, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has awarded Hwang a patent based on a cell line described in his retracted Science papers, as the Korea Times reports. The New York Times picked up the story Friday:
Despite all that, Dr. Hwang has just been awarded an American patent covering the disputed work, leaving some scientists dumbfounded and providing fodder to critics who say the Patent Office is too lax.
“Shocked, that’s all I can say,” said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a professor at Oregon Health and Science University who appears to have actually accomplished what Dr. Hwang claims to have done. “I thought somebody was kidding, but I guess they were not.”
The patent cites both of Hwang’s retracted Science papers, without noting they’re retracted. Apparently that wasn’t a problem, notes the Times:
But a spokesman for the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and some outside patent lawyers, said the system operates on an honor code and that patent examiners cannot independently verify claims.
The patent is “definitely not an assertion by the U.S. government that everything he is claiming is accurate,” the U.S.P.T.O. spokesman, Patrick Ross, said of Dr. Hwang. He said the agency was aware of Dr. Hwang’s history and took steps to make sure the claimed invention complied with patent statutes.
One of those citations has what we might consider a Freudian slip: Instead of “Patient-Specific Embryonic Stem Cells Derived from Human SCNT Blastocysts,” the reference reads “Patent-Specific Embryonic Stem Cells Derived from Human SCNT Blastocysts” (emphasis ours).