December 24, 2005

South Korea Tries to Pick Up Pieces from Science Fraud

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL -- South Korea tried to make sense on Saturday of the exposure of fraud in a celebrated paper by its most famous scientist, while a panel next week may say if there was any truth to his claim of producing tailored stem cells.

An investigation panel at Seoul National University on Friday said in an interim report that data in a landmark 2005 paper from a team led by researcher Hwang Woo-suk was intentionally fabricated and had undermined the fundamentals of science.

South Koreans reacted with sorrow, shock and shame on Friday when Hwang, who they had once hailed as a hero, resigned in disgrace from his post as professor.

Publishers of children's books have stopped producing books on Hwang. They have asked for books about Hwang's rise from an impoverished childhood to becoming a humble hero of the country be taken off the shelves, local media reported.

Several South Korean newspapers on Saturday tried to look for the silver lining in the scandal, which they described as devastating.

"Hwang has put a dagger through the heart of Korean citizens who cheered his accomplishments and showed support for his work," the mainstream JoongAng Daily said in an editorial.

The paper said the investigation into fraud with Hwang's research must be thorough and the case should serve as a lesson.

The country owed a debt of gratitude to the young South Korea scientists in Hwang's team who found the courage to point out fraud in the paper on tailored embryonic stem cells, it said.

"Proving the ability of our scientists to objectively critique one of their own at least saved Korean science from completely collapsing," it said.

The conservative daily Chosun Ilbo said in an editorial that changing the strong hierarchical structure of South Korean labs will be a difficult, but necessary task.

The next steps for the nine-member Seoul National University investigation panel include looking at the other landmark discoveries by Hwang's team.

The panel will test the veracity of a 2004 paper on producing the first cloned human embryos for research and producing the world's first cloned dog -- an Afghan hound named Snuppy.

Next week, the panel is expected to release findings on whether Hwang's team actually produced tailored embryonic stem cells, which was the key finding in their May 2005 paper published in the U.S. periodical Science, South Korean media reported on Saturday.

Science said in a statement on its Web site that it was working to retract the 2005 paper while reviewing the 2004 paper on cloning the first human embryos for research.

"Given the concerns raised about the 2005 paper, we are undertaking a careful review of the 2004 paper as well and expect to consult with outside advisors as needed," it said.

The university panel has been conducting DNA testing on cells provided by Hwang that he says were part of the 2005 study to see if they are tailored embryonic stem cells with DNA that matches the donors who were a part of the study.

Hwang apologized on Friday for the scandal but said patient-tailored embryonic stem cells were South Korean technology and it would be confirmed.

(Additional reporting by Rhee So-eui)