August 24, 2009

South Korea Seeking Jail Time For Stem Cell Scientist

On Monday, South Korean prosecutors told a Seoul court that they expect a four-year prison term for disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk, whose research team has been linked to major fraud in its once-celebrated stem cell studies.

Hwang brought the country to the forefront of stem cell studies, but is facing trial on charges of fraud by misusing $2.25 million in state funds and violating bioethics laws.

Prosecutors claim that Hwang brought shame to the country and harm to scientific research in South Korea.

"The disappointment felt by the (Korean) people is enormous," one of the team of prosecutors told the court.

Hwang has apologized for the fraud in his team's work, but has denied any wrongdoing.  He said junior researchers duped him into believing the landmark results.

Lee Bong-gu, a lawyer for Hwang, said: "These people, including the prosecutors are trying to tear apart Hwang's precious scientific evidence."

Legal experts said that Hwang's trial at a nondescript Seoul court has been going on for three years and might stretch to a fourth.  The trial has been bogged down in the technical testimony from scores of scientists about the research done by his team.
Hwang supporters have held emotional rallies saying that he is a scientific savior who should be given a second chance.

Hwang's team has made two major breakthroughs in the field by cloning stem cells and tailoring them to a specific patient.  This had raised hopes of generating genetically specific tissue to repair damaged organs or treat diseases like Alzheimer's.

Stem cells are the body's master cells, giving rise to all the tissues, organs and blood.  Embryonic stem cells are considered the most powerful kinds of stem cells because they have the potential to rise to any type of tissue.

A team at Seoul National University said in late 2005 that Hwang's team deliberately fabricated vital data in the two papers on human embryonic stem cells.

Hwang's team was verified to produce the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy.

"Hwang's fall discouraged the government from supporting stem cell studies. It also meant that researchers in the field were the objects of scorn," said Oh Il-hwan, a Catholic University Medical school professor specializing in bioethics.

Hwang went on to form Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in 2007 with major financial backing from his supporters.  The foundation specializes in animal cloning and has produced cloned dogs.