January 4, 2006

Shamed South Korea Scientist Coerced Women for Eggs: TV

SEOUL -- A South Korean scientist whose work on tailored embryonic stem cells has been discredited, coerced junior female colleagues on his team to donate their own eggs for his research, a television network reported late on Tuesday.

A spokesman for Seoul National University said on Wednesday its panel investigating Hwang Woo-suk for scientific fraud would not comment on the allegation until it releases its final findings next week.

Hwang, who claimed in a landmark 2005 paper he had made a breakthrough in therapeutic cloning research, was dealt a devastating blow last week by the panel, which said none of his work, published in the journal Science, could be proved.

Junior female researchers felt compelled to subject themselves to painful procedures to extract eggs and contribute to Hwang's research out of fear they would otherwise be excluded from academic recognition, a member of his team told MBC TV.

"She said she told Professor Hwang she wouldn't go through with the procedure, and she said Professor Hwang got upset and said, 'Why not?"' said one researcher, speaking about a colleague on the team.

"She was worried, and it was out of worry that she decided to donate her eggs," said the researcher, whose appearance and voice were altered in the TV interview to shield her identity.

The donor went back to Hwang's laboratory and conducted the cloning experiment on the eggs that she herself had contributed that morning, her colleague said.

"I hope I can forgive myself for not being able to stand up to the professor," the donor wrote in an e-mail message, provided to MBC.

MBC TV has closely followed questions about Hwang's research and reported in a November that the scientist purposely withheld information about the source of the eggs used in his study.

Hwang has been in seclusion since he resigned from Seoul National University on December 23. He did not comment on the latest report.

The university's investigating panel said in an interim report on Friday there was no data to prove Hwang's team had produced tailored embryonic stem cells as he had claimed.

Hwang's work had been touted as holding out the promise that cells cloned with patients' tissues could one day be used to treat many debilitating illnesses and injuries.

The panel is investigating two other reports by Hwang's team, including the veracity of a 2005 claim that it had produced the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy.

The panel said it planned to question Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, a former collaborator of Hwang who first raised ethical questions in November about the South Korean's work.