December 16, 2005

S.Korean Scientist Claims Proof He Made Stem Cells

By Cheon Jong-woo and Kim So-young

SEOUL (Reuters) - A South Korean scientist whose work is under intense scrutiny hit back at his accusers on Friday, saying he had proof his team had made patient-tailored stem cells this year and he would produce the evidence soon.

Hwang Woo-suk told a televised news conference at Seoul National University that five frozen stem cells were in the process of being thawed for analysis. He expected results in 10 days.

"Our six research members made 11 stem cells and all confirmed this," said Hwang. Some cells had been contaminated by a fungus and he planned to ask prosecutors to investigate his suspicion they may have been tampered with or replaced.

"Who, with what intention, by what measure, who did such a thing?" he said. "I believe this must be unearthed."

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.

His team published a study on tailored human stem cells in May in the journal Science. The discovery was vital as it could one day lead to treatment for spinal injuries, for example.

Hwang said he was retracting the paper from Science because of the dispute, even though he did not doubt his findings. He said a follow-up paper sent to another journal would restore faith.

Science magazine's policy on retractions requires all authors of a paper agree to the terms of the retraction, said Donald Kennedy, the journal's editor-in-chief. Kennedy said at a teleconference that Hwang was pursuing this agreement.

If the authors cannot agree, the magazine may decide on its own to retract the paper, Kennedy said.

He noted investigations are under way at Seoul National University and the University of Pittsburgh, adding, "As of now, we can't reach any conclusions with respect to research misconduct issues. It would be premature to do that."


Seoul National University said earlier it would step up an investigation into Hwang, the country's top stem-cell scientist, after a close collaborator told media Thursday Hwang himself had said some key parts of the paper were fabricated.

Hwang, who turned 53 Thursday, did not directly address the accusations but said his team had notes and pictures of the process to prove they had made the stem cells.

"I was so surprised and embarrassed to see the news reports," said a combative Hwang. His 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.

"I'm so confused about the news. Most Korean people want to believe that Hwang's assertion is true, but we really need to know the truth," said Lee Un-kyoung, a 37-year-old teacher. "I would feel betrayed if the reports were true."


Hwang -- a charismatic figure pictured with the cloned puppy earlier this year and more recently filmed unshaven in a hospital suffering from exhaustion -- had been under scrutiny since November 24 when he apologized for two junior women researchers donating their eggs for his work and not releasing news of that early.

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.

"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 -- fell by their daily limit of 15 percent early on and stayed there.

"From a Korean perspective, the news was shocking," said Kim Joong-hyun, an analyst at Goodmorning Shinhan Securities, noting overall sentiment had suffered, too.

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 asked to have his name taken off a study he co-authored with Hwang.

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

Roh repeated those accusations at a lengthy and tearful news conference Friday after Hwang's briefing.

Roh told media nine of the 11 stem-cell lines -- batches -- that were part of the tailored stem study paper were fabricated and the authenticity of the other two was questionable.

Reports in South Korean media said some photographic images of the stem-cell lines may have been manipulated to appear as if there were 11 separate lines. Hwang had recently asked Science to correct some images in his study, which Science said did not change any of the findings.

"I feel so bad for Dr. Hwang and sorry for this kind of absurd situation," said Cho Sun-young, a 27-year-old office worker. "But for now, I would like to trust what Hwang said."

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