January 10, 2006

Seoul university apologizes for science fraud

By Jon Herskovitz and Lee Jin-joo

SEOUL (Reuters) - The president of one of South Korea's most prestigious universities apologized on Wednesday for scientific fraud at his school, saying two fabricated papers on stem cell research had embarrassed the country and science.

On Tuesday, a investigation panel at Seoul National University said a team led by once-heralded and now disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk faked two landmark papers on embryonic stem cells, but did produce the world's first cloned dog.

"Hwang's research team did something scientists should never do. This incident left a mark that cannot be erased in Korea and the international science community," Seoul National University President Chung Un-chan told a news conference.

Chung said he had asked a committee to punish the professors who were involved in the scandal.

Hwang's research raised hope from those suffering from debilitating and deadly diseases because it seemed to hasten the day when genetically specific tissue could be grown to help repair damaged bodies and cure ailments such as severe spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's disease.

"By embarrassing the country, as the president of this university, I am deeply to sorry to everyone," Chung said in a statement in Korean. An English-language version of the same statement is expected to be made available later in the day.

Hwang was a professor at the university, widely regarded as one of the top seats of learning in the country.

He resigned in late December when the panel said in an interim report data had been deliberately fabricated in one of his team's papers and Hwang bore major responsibility for the fraud.

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.

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 papers were published in the U.S. periodical Science.

The panel said DNA tests proved a 2005 claim made by the team of producing the 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 crime of fraudulently obtaining state funds can be punished by up to 10 years in prison, local media reported.

South Korean media reported Hwang may make a statement to the public on Wednesday. He has been in seclusion since December 23, when he resigned.