December 16, 2005

S. Korean Scientist Says Stem Cells Contaminated: Report

By Cheon Jong-woo and Kim So-young

SEOUL -- A South Korean scientist whose work is under intense scrutiny has told colleagues he can produce stem cells but those made in a landmark 2005 study are contaminated, Yonhap news agency said on Friday.

The agency quoted a professor who attended a meeting with Hwang Woo-suk at Seoul National University as saying Hwang told fellow academics he had no stem cells available now.

Hwang was due to speak to reporters at 0500 GMT about the study on tailor-made human stem cells published in May in the journal Science.

Earlier, Seoul National University said it would step up an investigation into Hwang, the country's top stem-cell scientist, after reports key parts of the paper had been fabricated.

Thursday's reports brought to a head a controversy over work by Hwang, whose team at Seoul National University published the first scientific paper on cloning a human embryo in 2004 and this year displayed the world's first cloned dog.

"Seoul National University will probe doubts raised about (Hwang's) 2005 thesis first and, if the doubts are confirmed, will replicate experiments," the university said in a statement.

The case has wide ramifications for the already controversial field of stem-cell research and for the prestige of South Korea, where Hwang has become a folk hero.

Hwang -- a charismatic figure pictured with the cloned puppy earlier this year and more recently filmed unshaven in hospital suffering from exhaustion -- did not attend a news conference at which the university statement was read.

The professor, who was 53 on Thursday, has been under scrutiny since November 24 when he apologized for two junior women researchers donating their eggs for his work and for not releasing information about that incident promptly.


Roe Jung-hye, the university's dean of research affairs, told reporters the review team would send Hwang's team a questionnaire on Monday and a conclusion could be reached in one or two weeks.

She said the reports raised fresh doubts about Hwang's work. The probe, already arranged before the latest reports surfaced, would go on even if Hwang confirmed the study had flaws.

Just two months ago, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun opened a World Stem Cell Hub center, billed as a project to put the country at the forefront of cloning research.

If the pinpointed study proves to be flawed or false it would rank as one of the biggest science fraud cases in years.

"I am sure anti stem-cell activists will use this to show that there are problems with this science and that it is not effectively regulated," said David Winickoff, assistant professor of bioethics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Shares in South Korean firms involved in biotechnology -- a key growth area for Asia's fourth-largest economy -- were down by their daily limit of 15 percent. Overall sentiment suffered, too.

"Even though other sectors have no relation to the news, there has been an indirect impact on market sentiment," said Kim Joong-hyun, an analyst at Goodmorning Shinhan Securities. "From a Korean perspective, the news was shocking."

A U.S. cloning and stem-cell expert who had lent his name and prestige to Hwang's work, Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, earlier this week alleged there may have been fabrications and asked to have his name taken off a study he co-authored with Hwang.

On Thursday, Roh Sung-il, a hospital administrator and specialist in fertility studies who worked directly with Hwang, said his colleague had admitted there were fabrications in the second study on tailor-made human stem cells.

(Additional reporting by Rhee So-eui, Lee Jin-joo, Rafael Nam and Jon Herskovitz in South Korea and Maggie Fox in Washington)