December 31, 2005

Disgraced S. Korean Scientist Defends Work

SEOUL, South Korea -- Disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk insisted he has the technology to produce embryonic stem cells matched to different patients even though a panel of his peers said he lied about creating such cells, a newspaper reported Saturday.

A university panel said Thursday that Hwang did not produce any patient-specific stem cell lines as claimed in a paper published in May in the journal Science, dealing a shattering blow to the scientist's already tarnished reputation as a medical pioneer.

But Hwang stood by his work.

"I definitely have the source technology to produce tailored embryonic stem cells," Hwang was quoted as saying in Beopbo, a South Korean Buddhist newspaper. "I can replicate the process anytime."

Scientists hope to someday use stem cells - master cells that can grow into any body tissue - to cure diseases such as Alzheimer's and diabetes. Creating stem cells genetically matched to a specific patient would be a breakthrough because they would not be rejected by the patient's immune systems.

Hwang was last seen in public more than a week ago when he resigned as professor at Seoul National University following the school's initial report that his team had deliberately fabricated data in the May paper to make it look like they created 11 colonies of human embryonic stem cells genetically matched to specific patients.

The university panel concluded Hwang faked the research on nine of the stem cell lines. It later confirmed the two remaining cell lines were also fabricated but it wasn't clear whether they were faked by Hwang or scientists at Seoul's Mizmedi Hospital who collaborated with his research team.

Hwang has filed a complaint with prosecutors that some of the stem cell lines his team created were replaced by those made at Mizmedi.

"It's certain (stem cells) have been switched," Hwang was quoted as saying, claiming the replacement took place "under a detailed plan over quite a long period of time."

"Once an investigation starts it will take about a couple of days to bring to light the truth," Hwang said, according to the newspaper.

Mizmedi Hospital has denied switching the stem cell colonies.

After soaring to international renown last year, the 53-year-old Hwang became the focal point of pride in South Korea, a nation obsessed with education and achievement. That quickly turned to disbelief and anger as escalating revelations of fraud soured many who initially supported him when the first doubts emerged.

Prosecutors have said they will wait until the university probe is completed before launching their own investigation.

Seoul National University plans to release the final results of the investigation in mid-January, including those into Hwang's earlier purported breakthroughs, such as the world's first cloned human embryo and first cloned dog.