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Laboratory ethics: What makes some scientists cheat?

Questionable stem-cell research in a South Korea case may be the latest in a series of ethical lapses in 2005.

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Is it a matter of shoddy work in the lab? A problem of excessive deference by junior researchers to senior scientists? Or does the case of the suspect stem-cell experiments in South Korea - an episode that is shaking the biomedical field worldwide - point to a severe lapse of research ethics?

With a probe at Seoul National University just beginning, it is likely to be some time before investigators can explain what led to apparent flaws in research - once celebrated as groundbreaking - by scientist Hwang Woo-Suk. His work involved cloning human embryos to garner highly prized stem cells specific to individual patients - an ability seen as an advantage in any future stem-cell therapies.

In the meantime, the case is prompting a closer look at how scientific journals screen research reports before publication, as well as forcing a deeper recognition of the intense pressures scientists can experience while working on cutting-edge, high-stakes research.

"Scientists are not a special breed of human being," says Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics institute in Garrison, N.Y. "But they function in a special environment.... They are bright people working in a community where the best ideas rise to the top. If you're not in first place, you're no place."

South Korea's probe at the dawn of what some dub "the biotech century" caps a year of research-ethics challenges.

• Late last month, a US district court judge in Albany, N.Y., sentenced a former Veterans Administration cancer researcher to 71 months in jail for criminally negligent homicide. Paul Kornak admitted that he had forged medical records, opening the way for people to take part in drug trials who should have been excluded because of existing medical conditions. One participant whose records were altered died during the experiment.

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