Scientist famous for human ear on mouse accused of cheating


SCIENTIST CAO Yilin looked close to reaching the top of his profession, with the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering set to honour him for his work to grow a human ear on the back of a laboratory mouse.

However, a former colleague has accused the professor of cheating on his research and of producing a fake ear. In a country where intellectual property theft is rampant and academic plagiarism is a serious impediment to becoming more innovative, the charges are being taken very seriously indeed.

In 1997, Prof Cao, a plastic surgeon, produced a Vacanti mouse – a mouse genetically altered to have a strong immune system – with an ear on its back and set about trying to give the research a practical application in medicine.

His groundbreaking work in tissue engineering has won him worldwide plaudits. He returned to China to help further the country’s research and is director of the Shanghai Key Laboratory of Tissue Engineering at Jiao Tong University.

Prof Cao’s advances seemed to promise a world in which his process could be used to grow jawbones, skin, joints and internal organs. However, he was rejected as a candidate for the academy on August 17th after a former colleague accused him of cheating.

In the magazine Oriental Outlook, Shang Qingxin, a postgraduate classmate and former colleague of Prof Cao, said the candidate had used cartilage from cows and some plastics to make the ear, and had wasted 300 million yuan (€32.6) million trying to get mice to grow human ears.

He said Prof Cao had refused to repeat the experiment after he had returned to China in the late 1990s. After hospital authorities started asking for more proof, the professor had asked for the disposal of the ear.

There were other accusations that he simply made an ear using plastic and cow tissue in the laboratory and then sewed it on to the back of the mouse.

Ding Xiaobang, a plastic surgeon at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and a former colleague of Prof Cao, said he was being framed.

“From the beginning, Cao has never said he was using human cells. So there has been no cheating at all,” Dr Ding told the China Daily.

Prof Cao has responded by producing another Vacanti mouse with a human ear on its back.

“The mouse has gone through state investigation and results will be published soon,” he was quoted as saying in the Shanghai Daily.