Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk is, to say the least, a controversial figure in the world of cloning research. He's produced hundreds of animals, including the first cloned puppy in 2005; more recently, he's worked on attempts to clone a preserved woolly mammoth. But one of his greatest achievements turned out to be a fraud that shook the scientific community. In 2004 and 2005, his research group published papers describing the first human stem cell line to ever be derived from a cloned embryo. When pressed, though, Hwang wasn't able to back up his claims. Ultimately, he was found to have fabricated data about the "breakthrough." The papers were retracted, and Huang was indicted for embezzlement and ethical violations. But that hasn't stopped the US Patent and Trademark Office from granting him a patent for the cells.
Earlier this month, the USPTO approved Hwang's patent on a method for creating embryonic stem cells based on his fraudulent results. Why? Largely because applicants don't have to prove an invention actually works. In a statement to The New York Times, a spokesperson said that the patent office cannot independently verify all claims, saying the patent is "definitely not an assertion by the US government that everything he is claiming is accurate." But the agency, he said, was aware of Hwang's history and still approved his application, after making sure it complied with US patent standards.
Hwang's patent applications have drawn criticism for years. As early as 2006, New Scientist was reporting that he would likely be granted patents under relatively loose European standards. "As long as an invention is not clearly contrary to scientific laws — like time travel — research has no bearing on the grant of a patent," said a UK Patent Office spokesperson at the time. In 2008, Australia found his proposal met its patent standards, and Canada followed in 2011. According to The Korea Times, Hwang has continued to maintain that his stem cell line was indeed cloned, and these patents provide ammunition for his claims, even if that's unintentional.
Some also fear that Hwang's patent will impede similar, non-fraudulent work. Even if the patent is later found invalid, getting through the court process would be an expensive and time-consuming venture. But reactions are mixed. It's possible that other scientists will steer clear of getting too close to Hwang's work. If Hwang's process can't produce results, though, it could be unlikely anyone will attempt something similar enough to infringe the patent. "If it's bad, it's not going to be worth very much," biotechnology patent lawyer Kevin E. Noonan tells the Times.