PITTSBURGH – Lax policies and disregard for federal guidelines at the University of Pittsburgh allowed a stem-cell scientist to participate in an international scientific hoax last year, according to an investigation by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Last year, a university-sanctioned collaboration between Dr. Gerald Schatten and a group of South Korean scientists headed by Dr. Hwang Woo-suk collapsed in disgrace after the debunking of an article they co-authored claiming the creation of stem cells from the world's first cloned human embryos.
The claimed breakthrough had offered false hope to millions suffering from paralysis and debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and AIDS.
After dozens of interviews and a monthlong probe of university and federal records, The Tribune-Review said:
— Pitt disregarded federal recommendations designed to safeguard people by allowing its scientists to determine if their work constitutes human-subject research.
— The university skipped a full review of Schatten's research after he assured an oversight board it did not involve identifiable people; subsequent investigations at Pitt and Seoul National University revealed the identities of the egg donors were not kept secret from the Korean scientists.
— Schatten proceeded to publish his research because of Pitt's inaction. He sought the university's clearance only after his work was done.
— Pitt opts to withhold privately funded research, such as Schatten's work, from federal oversight.
The paper said Schatten could not be reached for comment.
University spokeswoman Jocelyn Duffy said Sunday that Schatten would not talk to reporters on the issue. Schatten has an unlisted number and has declined to talk to reporters on the subject in the past.
Pitt's Institutional Review Board determined it had no jurisdiction over Schatten's work and did not need to approve it because he told them his research did not involve identifiable people, university spokeswoman Jane Duffield wrote in an e-mail.
That determination came in a letter sent after Schatten and Hwang had already submitted a first draft of their paper to the journal Science.
The U.S. Office for Human Research Protections recommends researchers not be given the authority to independently determine that their work does not involve human subjects.
At the university, however, "most investigators conducting research make that determination themselves," Duffield wrote.
Duffield also said federal rules requiring the Institutional Review Board's approval would not have applied to Schatten's work because it was paid for by the Magee-Womens Health Foundation, not the government.
The Schatten-Hwang article was published last summer in Science, which retracted it in January. A South Korean academic panel determined Hwang fabricated data to support his claim that he cloned human embryos and extracted stem cells from them. It also concluded Hwang falsely claimed to have developed 11 stem cell lines tailored to specific patients.
In February, the University of Pittsburgh Research Integrity Panel concluded that Schatten, in his zeal to be linked to a cloning breakthrough, shirked his responsibilities. The panel said Schatten did not intentionally falsify or fabricate data, but that he committed "research misbehavior," and left any discipline up to school officials.
Earlier this month, Pitt issued draft regulations to help ensure that stem cell research is conducted legally and ethically.