December 26, 2005

S.Korea Panel Probes Disgraced Scientist’s Key Claim

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL -- A South Korean university said on Monday it expected results next week on DNA testing that should prove whether there is any truth to the claim by disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk that he produced tailored stem cells.

A nine-member investigation panel at Seoul National University found last week that data in a much-heralded 2005 paper by a team led by Hwang was intentionally fabricated and had undermined the fundamentals of science.

But the panel did not reach any conclusion on whether the team actually produced patient-specific embryonic stem cells that could one day be used to make genetically matched tissue to treat diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer's.

Medical researchers have said it would be one of the biggest scientific frauds in recent history if Hwang's team did not produce tailor-made stem cells, as they claimed in the paper published in the journal Science.

The Korean Medical Association said on Monday it was starting its own probe into the affair. The association will fine and or suspend any medical professionals who violated legal or ethical guidelines, it said in a statement.

The investigating panel has asked three laboratories to conduct DNA testing on cells that were part of work by Hwang's team to see if they are stem cell lines with DNA that matches that of the donors.

"Taking into account time we need to review the results, the announcement on the test results is unlikely to come this week," the panel said in a statement.


Several South Korean media outlets reported that much of the DNA testing has already been completed, citing sources close to the probe.

The panel also questioned a junior scientist with Hwang's team over the weekend. Researcher Kim Sun-jong told South Korean media he was ordered to alter photographs to make it appear as if Hwang's team had produced several lines of stem cells.

The panel found the team had produced only two stem cell lines, not 11 as the authors had claimed in the fraudulent study.

Prosecutors are expected to question Hwang this week over his allegation that someone in his team might have undermined his work by switching data, the daily Chosun Ilbo reported.

Prosecutors have said Hwang could face a criminal probe for misappropriation of state funds if his work is proved fraudulent.

Hwang resigned his position at the university last week and apologised for the scandal. But he has insisted it would be confirmed he did produce patient-tailored embryonic stem cells.

The panel is also testing the veracity of other work by Hwang's team, including a 2004 paper on producing the first cloned human embryos for research and a claim that it produced the world's first cloned dog -- an Afghan hound named Snuppy.

(Additional reporting by Rhee So-eui)