October 26, 2009

Disgraced Stem-Cell Scientist Guilty

Hwang Woo-Suk, a South Korean cloning expert, was given a suspended prison sentence on Monday after a court found him guilty of embezzlement and other charges stemming from faking results of stem-cell experiments.

However, Hwang was found not guilty of defrauding private entities that contributed funds to his research.

South Korean prosecutors said they would appeal the not guilty ruling for fraud, as they had originally sought a four-year jail term when Hwang went on trial in June 2006.

Hwang and former colleagues at Seoul National University claimed in a 2004 paper published in the journal Science that they had created the world's first cloned human embryos - and had extracted stem cells from them.

But the court found no evidence Hwang directly instructed his team to exaggerate or manipulate the experiments.

A crowd of about 100 supporters applauded Hwang as he left the court building. The court received petitions from 55 lawmakers and others calling for leniency.

Hwang became world famous in 2004 when he and his team claimed to have created the world's first stem-cell line from a cloned human embryo.

He maintained that his team had developed 11 patient-specific embryonic stem-cell lines during a follow-up paper in 2005 "“ raising false hope of new treatments for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Parkinson's.

Hwang and his team were given money and honors from the prestigious Seoul National University (SNU) and he was awarded the title of "Supreme Scientist."

But in November 2005, allegations swirled that he had violated medical ethics by accepting human eggs from his own researchers.

Local television network MBC soon began reporting that his entire research was fabricated and in January 2006 an SNU investigative team ruled in a report that his findings were faked and said he had produced no stem cells of any kind.

He was also found guilty of breaching a law on bioethics that bans illegal human egg transactions. The verdict said Hwang and his team failed to prove that they were not involved in illegal trading of human eggs.

Hwang was charged with misappropriating a combined $704,000 in research funds by using borrowed bank accounts or manipulating tax bills, but he maintained he did not do so for personal profit.

In 2005, Hwang and Seoul National University team of scientists created the first known cloned dog, Snuppy.

He has since focused on cloning canines since being fired by the university and stripped of the right to conduct stem cell research.

"His brilliant achievements in animal experiments, his sincere repentance and the fact he was already disciplined by his school should be considered," the judges said.

The protracted trial heard testimony from more than 60 witnesses and lasted more than three years.