Feb 24 2014, 7:26am CST | by Forbes
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
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 2006, Hwang admitted to publishing fake data, but blamed his junior colleagues. In 2007, Hwang was fired from Seoul National University (SNU) and he was later convicted of bioethical violations and embezzlement. The official investigation by SNU found that Hwang
“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?
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