January 10, 2006

S. Korean Scientists Faked Stem Cell Papers

By Jon Herskovitz and Jack Kim

SEOUL -- A team led by a once-heralded and now disgraced South Korean scientist faked two landmark papers on embryonic stem cells but did produce the world's first cloned dog, an investigation panel said on Tuesday.

The panel at Seoul National University told reporters data was deliberately fabricated in papers produced by the team led by scientist Hwang Woo-suk. It described the case as scandalous.

Medical researchers say the episode -- which has shocked and shamed many South Koreans who had dubbed Hwang a hero -- is one of the biggest cases of scientific fraud in recent history.

"These individuals cannot be regarded to represent science in Korea," the panel said in an English-language statement.

The two papers finally debunked on Tuesday were a 2004 report on producing the first cloned human embryos for research and a 2005 paper on producing the first embryonic tailored stem cells. Both reports were published in the U.S. periodical Science.

"Hwang's team did not have the data for the stem cell lines in the 2004 paper, but fabricated it," Chung Myung-hee, the head of the panel, told reporters.

Chung reiterated a finding in an interim report in late December that there was no data to prove Hwang's team produced tailored stem cells, as it claimed in the May 2005 paper.

That paper caused a sensation because the findings raised hopes that embryonic stem cells could one day be used to create genetically-specific tissue to treat ailments such as severe spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's disease.

"We concluded that Professor Hwang's team did not have patient-specific stem cell lines and did not have any scientific basis that the team made them," the panel said.

The panel said DNA analysis proved a 2005 claim made by the team of producing the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy, which is short for Seoul National University puppy.


Prosecutors have said they may start a criminal probe into Hwang on suspicion of misusing state funds based on the findings in the panel's report.

The report did not publicize any findings on who may have been responsible for the fabrication. Chung said he would that to investigative authorities, referring to prosecutors.

Science has already said it will retract the May 2005 paper on embryonic stem cells. It said it had asked the panel for its final report and was asking the authors of the papers to answer technical questions.

The panel also said Hwang's team procured more human egg cells than they had reported.

It said junior researchers in Hwang's laboratory had donated eggs, and in one instance of egg procurement, "Professor Hwang accompanied the student to the hospital himself."

Donations of this sort by research assistants are considered an ethical violation because of the possibility of coercion.

Hwang has been in seclusion since he resigned from Seoul National University on December 23. South Korean media said he may give a news conference on Tuesday or Wednesday.

He has stood by his findings, saying they were South Korean technology and would be proved.

The panel said the fraud in the May 2005 paper undermined the principles of science and Hwang must shoulder much of the blame.

The discredited scientist had been widely feted by the government and admired by the public before the scandal broke. Some people still vocally support him.

(Additional reporting by Maggie Fox in Washington)