A leading Shanghai university and its affiliated hospital on Friday refuted recent accusations of scientific fraud lodged against a scientist who became famous for growing a human ear on the back of a laboratory mouse.
Shanghai Jiaotong University, its medical school and the affiliated No. 9 People's Hospital held a joint press conference Friday to explain how the "ear mouse" was grown in an effort to refute accusations against Professor Cao Yilin.
To demonstrate how the mouse was grown, Cao brought some of his mice, as well as the material he used to reconstruct the human ear, to the press conference.
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 at Harvard University in 1997.
Cao's work in tissue engineering and his efforts to apply the results to the fields of plastic and reconstructive surgery won him international fame.
He returned to China in the late 1990s and became director of the university's tissue engineering lab.
His research findings, including his famed ear-mouse, were highlighted at a high-profile exhibition of China's scientific and technological progress held in 2001.
In May of this year, he was nominated to become an academic at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences. But within weeks, some of his former colleagues accused him of cheating his benefactors out of 300 million yuan (46.9 million U.S. dollars) in research funds with a fake 'human ear mouse'.
An investigation was subsequently launched, with Cao's name removed from the final list of nominees for the academy.
On June 21, a day after the accusations appeared in a Shanghai-based magazine, Cao and his team began to grow mice again.
By mid-August, they had grown eight mice with human ears on their backs, recording the entire process with a video camera.
Beginning on Aug. 14, an expert panel consisting of four academics and eight leading experts in tissue engineering conducted an investigation of Cao's research.
They took samples of reconstructed tissue from Cao's mice and confirmed through lab work that it was indeed human cartilage tissue, instead of plastic and cartilage from cows, as Cao's accusers claimed.
One of the accusers was Cao's postgraduate classmate and former colleague Shang Qingxin. In an interview with Oriental Outlook magazine, Shang said Cao originally made an ear using plastic and cow tissue.
"It was not a bad thing for others to question my research findings," Cao said at Friday's press conference. "But I can assure you that the ears on the backs of our mice were not made of plastic. I never cheated."
"My team received 80 million yuan in funding over 10 years. The funds were divided among dozens of institutions involved in the research work," he said.
Auditors from the National Audit Office found no flaws in Cao's account during an auditing process that lasted from July 5 to 14.
Cao said he was determined to give the research a practical application in medicine. "Tissue engineering will ultimately solve many of the problems we face in plastic surgery. I wouldn't even mind experimenting on myself," he said.
The research findings will hopefully be used to grow jawbones, skin, joints and internal organs in the future, he said.