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Fraud and Retractions, But Still a Patent

Hwang Woo-Suk, the Korean researcher who claimed in 2004 to have cloned human embryos and then extracted stem cells from them, has been awarded a patent on the method by the US Patent and Trademark Office despite the subsequent findings that his work was fraudulent, the New York Times reports.

Hwang had his two Science papers on the topic retracted, was fired from Seoul National University in 2005, and was found guilty of fraud and embezzlement.

Still, the Times notes, he received a patent for his work.

"Shocked, that's all I can say," Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a stem cell researcher at Oregon Health and Science University, tells the Times "I thought somebody was kidding, but I guess they were not." Retraction Watch notes Mitalipov's own work on deriving human embryonic stem cells through somatic cell nuclear transfer has been subject to corrections.

The Public Patent Foundation's Daniel Ravicher calls this patent evidence that the patent office "is a rubber-stamp, fee-motivated government agency." The USPTO and outside patent lawyers tell the Times that the agency is based on an honor system and that claims are not independently verified.

Kevin Noonan, a patent lawyer and co-author of the blog Patent Docs, notes that patents based on misleading information can be invalidated and that if the method doesn't work, it can't easily be enforced and can't stop others from patenting a method that does work.

"If it's bad, it's not going to be worth very much," Noonan says. "Who is going to sue on this patent?"