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Scientist cleared of falsifying results

By ZHANG ZHIHAO | China Daily | Updated: 2018-09-03 08:29
Han Chunyu's laboratory in Hebei University of Science and Technology in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province. [Photo/VCG]

An investigation into scientist Han Chunyu, who was forced to retract a paper he wrote about a groundbreaking gene-editing technique after allegations of fraud, has concluded that he did not intentionally falsify his research.

The news triggered some skepticism and debate online regarding academic integrity.

Han's employer, Hebei University of Science and Technology in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, said it had joined with third-party labs to conduct thorough investigations and repeated experiments regarding the data and findings presented in the paper, according to a short online statement released on Friday night.

The statement said the investigation found no evidence that Han, an associate professor of biology, and his team had subjectively or intentionally falsified their research, but said the retracted paper could not be republished. All titles, awards and grants given to Han as a result of the paper have been revoked, it added.

In a statement on Saturday, Han and his team accepted the results of the investigation and conceded that their research had design flaws and issues regarding accuracy. "While unexpected errors can occur in research, we apologize to the scientific community and the public for causing unnecessary trouble," they said.

In comments, netizens said they are skeptical of the school's findings, criticizing its use of vague terms, lack of supporting data and attempts to trivialize the incident.

Zhao Jianfei, deputy chief editor of the New England Journal of Medicine's Frontiers of Medical Science, said the investigation failed to answer key questions, including why Han initially insisted on the feasibility of his research to the media but later backpedaled, according to quotes in The Intellectual, an online media platform for Chinese scientists.

In May 2016, Han shocked the global science community when he published his paper, which focused on a more effective alternative to the popular CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technique. The paper was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Biotechnology.

In the paper, Han described how he had successfully used an enzyme called NgAgo to edit specific human genes with great accuracy, allowing for the possibility of creating designer babies with traits favorable to the elimination of cancers and genetic diseases.

The media and scientific peers initially hailed the discovery and portrayed Han as an underdog because he was an unremarkable scientist from a poorly funded lab.

Overnight, the public, the government and the school showered Han with praise and grants.

However, his fame faded as quickly as it arrived because peers, from schools as far apart as Australia and Spain, could not reproduce the results.

In the face of media inquiries, Han avoided answering key questions and claimed that some labs had reproduced his results. He also blamed unsuccessful trials on inaccurate methods or polluted samples.

He later retracted his claim after many scientists, both at home and abroad, were unable to duplicate his work despite a year of efforts.

The issue drove discontent among the scientific community. Han voluntarily retracted his paper in August last year.

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