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A Tale of 2 Biomedical Research Scandals
[Analysis] Cha prayer research predates Hwang's fabrications
Bruce L. Flamm (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2006-01-23 10:50 (KST)   
The scandal involving Dr. Hwang Woo Suk and Seoul National University made international headlines and will be debated for years at colleges and universities all over the world. Few research controversies have ever generated such massive media coverage. Almost anyone in any nation with an interest in science is now aware that Hwang's dog-cloning claim appears to be valid. But, sadly, his breakthrough human embryo and stem cell research published in the journal Science in 2004 and 2005 appears to be fraudulent. You have probably heard all this already.

However most people do not know that a very similar scandal recently occurred involving another flawed and almost certainly fraudulent embryo research study allegedly conducted in South Korea. That study, authored by Kwang Yul Cha and two Americans, Rogerio Lobo and Daniel Wirth, also claimed astounding results. Dr. Cha, a prominent infertility specialist, is a professor at Pochon CHA University and CEO of CHA Biotechnology Corporation in South Korea. The Cha, Wirth, Lobo paper, published in 2001 in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, seemed to prove that distant prayers from Christians in the United States, Canada, and Australia could miraculously double the success rate of complex In-Vitro infertility treatments at Cha Hospital in Seoul.

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The astounding results were too spectacular to have been caused by chance or statistical errors. This was either a major breakthrough or a major hoax. Many scientists immediately suspected fraud but, inexplicably, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine refused to respond to questions about the apparently supernatural study. Then something very odd occurred. One year after the Cha, Wirth, Lobo study was published, co-author Daniel Wirth was indicted by a United States federal grand jury on multiple felony charges. According to the federal indictment Wirth has a long history of criminal fraudulent activities.

Wirth was arrested and released on bail pending his trial. Yet, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine still refused to take action. On May 17, 2004 Wirth pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and bank fraud. On Nov. 23, 2004 Daniel Wirth was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

In spite of this unprecedented turn of events Kwang Yul Cha stood by the study's miraculous results. In November, 2004 the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a letter from Dr. Cha in which he defended the study and claimed that it would have been, "impossible for Mr. Wirth to have played any role in manipulating or altering the data." However, one month later the study's only remaining author, Dr. Rogerio Lobo from Columbia University in New York, took the unusual step of removing his name from the paper. Although Lobo had originally been touted as the study's lead author he now claimed to have not actually participated in the strange research project.

Officials at Columbia University including medical school dean Gerald Fischbach attempted to distance the school from the scandal. When the Cha, Wirth, Lobo paper was published in 2001, Columbia issued a press release stating that Dr. Rogerio Lobo, then chairman of their department of obstetrics and gynecology, was the study's lead author. Dr. Lobo was quoted in the New York Times as the study's lead author and appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" touting the miraculous results. At the same time Dr. Kwang Yul Cha was listed on the Columbia Internet site as head of the Cha-Columbia Infertility Center. Photographs of professors Lobo and Cha appeared on the same page of the Columbia site. After the scandal broke, the press release and all references to Dr. Kwang Yul Cha disappeared from the Columbia Internet site. In spite of the fact that two of the three authors were at Columbia when the paper was written, Columbia now claims that the university had nothing to do with the bizarre research.

There are striking parallels between the two research scandals. In both cases the research was allegedly conducted in Seoul, South Korea. In both cases the senior author was a prestigious professor at a U.S. University. In both cases the senior author claimed to have not actually participated in the research when the validity of the research was questioned. In both cases the U. S. author appears to have been recruited to add credibility to the flawed research and help with publication in a U.S. journal. Both cases involved human embryos and both seemed to have demonstrated major scientific breakthroughs.

Remarkably, Dr. Hwang, of the current scandal, has collaborated with Dr. Cha, of the previous scandal, on several research projects. Their names appear together on at least five published studies. From the dates of these publications it appears that Cha may have been working with the now-disgraced Hwang at the very same time he was also working with the notorious con-man, Daniel Wirth.

Why would a man of Dr. Hwang's stature stoop to such actions? He was apparently the first scientist in the world to clone a dog. He would have gone down in history for his success had he not gone astray. Why would a man of Dr. Cha's stature participate in a bizarre supernatural study? And why would he stand by that study even when it became clear that it was designed and allegedly conducted by a con-man with no medical credentials. These are baffling questions with no obvious answers. Perhaps Hwang was blinded by ambition and Cha was blinded by faith.

Although the two scandals were similar in many respects, the way they were handled could not have been more different. The journal Science quickly responded to questions about Hwang's research. They took immediate action and both flawed papers have already been retracted. In contrast, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine refused to answer questions and refused to take action. Daniel Wirth remains incarcerated in federal prison and Rogerio Lobo now says he had nothing to do with the research but Lawrence Devoe, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, steadfastly refuses to retract the bizarre Cha, Wirth, Lobo paper. Perhaps he, too, is blinded by faith.
Dr. Bruce Flamm is a physician and medical researcher. He has been the senior investigator on more than a dozen medical research studies and is the author of several medical books. He is a clinical professor at the University of California and a practicing physician at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Riverside, California.

Dr. Flamm's ongoing investigation of the Columbia University "Pray for Pregnancy" study has been featured in Time Magazine, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines world-wide.
©2006 OhmyNews

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