Infamous medical scientists

20160903110000, Mak Wen Yao 
Infamous medical scientists
The field of medical research is a prestigious one. Not only because it is humanity's hope to push the boundaries of medical care, it is also the cradle to produce the next brilliant scientist, the next James D. Watson. Unfortunately, this is also a cut-throat world with tremendous pressure to excel. Therefore, it is not surprising that many renowned scientists have taken the shortcut to achieve fame which ultimately led to their downfall.

Dr Andrew Wakefield: MMR vaccine and autism

Dr Andrew Wakefield first published his controversial paper describing the association between MMR vaccine and the development of autism in Lancet in 1998. In his paper, he and his collaborators detailed the progress of 12 children after MMR vaccination, and “discovered” eight of them showed developmental regression. The publication, although later proven to be a fraud and was retracted by Lancet, had caused widespread panic among parents. MMR vaccination rate plummeted globally (1). For example, vaccination rate in the UK dropped significantly after Dr Wakefield's paper and only recovered ten years later (2).

Dr Wakefield was stripped of his right to practice medicine in his home country Britain. The Medical Council which oversaw the decision said Dr Wakefield had demonstrated “a callous disregard” for the suffering of children in his research. The chairman of the council further stated that Dr Wakefield had “brought the medical profession into disrepute” and the council sanction “… is the only sanction that is appropriate to protect patients and is in the wider public interest, including the maintenance of public trust and confidence in the profession” (3).

Dr Wakefield is currently residing in the United States.

Dr Haruko Obokata: data fabrication in stem cell research

Dr Obokata made headlines in 2014 as the controversial figure in one of the largest scientific misconducts of recent years. She was the lead author of two publications which described a simple, yet revolutionary method to create stem cells. The co-author of these papers was the famous stem cell biologist, Yoshiki Sasai. Both scientists worked for the prestigious Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan.

In her 2014 paper published in Nature with the title “Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency”, Dr Obokata claimed that her team had discovered a ground-breaking alternative to convert mammalian somatic cells into pluripotent cells via “strong external stimuli such as transient low-pH stressor” (4). The publication helped propelled Dr Obokata to international fame and inevitably to her remarkable fall from grace. Following the publication, reports began to emerge criticising the irreproducibility of her work, and Riken initiated an internal investigation following these allegations. On 1st April of the same year, Riken concluded that there was evidence to support scientific misconduct in Dr Obokata’s groundbreaking study (5).

The event then triggered a series of other unfortunate consequences. Co-author and prominent stem cell scientist Yoshiki Sasai committed suicide. In addition, Riken had taken drastic steps to reduce the number of staffs of the Center for Developmental Biology by half, and elected a new director. Dr Obokata resigned from the centre by the end of the year (5,6).

Dr Hwang Woo-Suk: Disgraced stem cell scientist

Dr Hwang was once a prominent figure in both the Korean and international biomedical community. He was the leading scientist in the field of animal cloning where his fame and reputation came after he had successfully introduced Snuppy, the first dog clone, to the world (7).

In 2004, Dr Hwang again put himself under the limelight when he declared his team had successfully derived pluripotent embryonic stem cells from a cloned human embryo (cloned human blastocyst). In the following year, Dr Hwang published another paper in Science which demonstrated the establishment of eleven human embryonic stem cell lines from patients' skin cells (8,9).

The first sign of trouble emerged in the same year where allegations of women who worked in his laboratory donated their own eggs for experiments. This was followed by the withdrawal of the American collaborator, Dr Gerald Schatten, from the research team over “ethical violation” by means of how the eggs were obtained (10).

Seoul National University began their investigation and concluded in December that there were "deliberate fabrication" in the 2005 Science paper and it "cannot be some error from a simple mistake" (11).

Dr Hwang was found guilty of fabricating data, misusing research funds and trading illegally in human eggs in October 2006. He did not go to prison but only served a suspended sentence (12). MIMS

1. Anon. Study Linking Vaccine to Autism Is Called Fraud [Internet]. The New York Times. 2011 [cited 2016 Aug 22]. Available from: Andrew
2. The Health and Social Care Information Centre S and I, Team. NHS Immunisation Statistics, England 2011-12. 2012.
3. Burns J. British Medical Council Bars Doctor Who Linked Vaccine With Autism [Internet]. The New York Times. 2010 [cited 2016 Aug 22]. Available from: Andrew&_r=1
4. Obokata H, Wakayama T, Sasai Y, Kojima K, Vacanti M, Niwa H, et al. Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency. Nature. 2014;505(7485):641–7.
5. Rasko J, Power C. What pushes scientists to lie? The disturbing but familiar story of Haruko Obokata [Internet]. The Guardian. 2015 [cited 2016 Aug 22]. Available from:
6. Hongo J. Timeline: The Rise and Fall of Haruko Obokata in 2014 [Internet]. The Wall Street Journal. 2014 [cited 2016 Aug 22]. Available from:
7. Latson J. What Happened to the First Cloned Puppy [Internet]. TIME. 2015 [cited 2015 Aug 22]. Available from:
8. Hwang WS. Evidence of a Pluripotent Human Embryonic Stem Cell Line Derived from a Cloned Blastocyst. Science (80- ). 2004 Mar 12;303(5664):1669–74.
9. Hwang WS. Patient-Specific Embryonic Stem Cells Derived from Human SCNT Blastocysts. Science (80- ). 2005 Jun 17;308(5729):1777–83.
10. Wade N. No TitleKorean Scientist Said to Admit Fabrication in a Cloning Study [Internet]. The New York Times. 5AD [cited 2016 Aug 22]. Available from:
11. Anon. HWANG RESIGNS FROM UNIVERSITY AFTER PANEL’S PRELIMINARY CONCLUSION. [Internet]. SEED. 2005 [cited 2016 Aug 22]. Available from:
12. Anon. Gone, but not forgotten [Internet]. The Economist. 2009 [cited 2016 Aug 22]. Available from:

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