January 12, 2006

South Korean Scientist Apologizes, Hints at Conspiracy

By Jon Herskovitz and Rhee So-eui

SEOUL -- Disgraced South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk apologized on Thursday for wrongdoing at his laboratory, but said his team may have been the victim of a conspiracy trying to discredit them.

Underscoring Hwang's fall, prosecutors raided his home and offices on Thursday as part of a criminal probe into the alleged misuse of state funds, South Korean media reported.

An investigation panel at Seoul National University said on Tuesday a team led by the once-heralded Hwang faked two landmark papers on embryonic stem cells, but did produce the world's first cloned dog.

"I take full responsibility for the papers and offer you my apology," Hwang said at a televised news conference.

"I have no strength and am not qualified to be here," he said. "I can't keep my head up."

Hwang -- who had become a hero for many South Koreans and the recipient of government support -- had been in seclusion since resigning from Seoul National University on December 23, when the panel said in an interim report that data in the papers was fabricated and Hwang bore major responsibility for the fraud.

Hwang said he suspected people at a Seoul hospital that provided human eggs for his work manipulated data, which caused the fraud in his team's two papers.

"Our team still has the best technology of raising human blastocysts," Hwang said. Blastocysts are early embryos.

His team has submitted a paper on a new breakthrough that was even bigger than the achievement of producing a cloned dog, he said. He also said his team could create tailored stem cells within six months or so if given a second chance.

Hwang's stem-cell research had raised hope for those suffering from debilitating and deadly diseases because it seemed to hasten the day when genetically specific tissue could be grown to help repair damaged bodies and cure ailments such as severe spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's disease.

The Seoul central prosecutor's office said it obtained search warrants for 26 places related to the research led by Hwang's team that included his home and office, a Seoul hospital from which human eggs were procured and the homes of team members.

The prosecutor's office would not say whether any of the searches had been carried out, but South Korean media said Hwang's home and office had already been targeted.

A team of seven prosecutors was formed on Wednesday to look into the case and wants to act swiftly to prevent tampering with any evidence, an official said by telephone.

It also expects to conduct interviews with all the main actors in the scandal, the official said.

Prosecutors would not give details of their probe. Prior to the raids, they said Hwang may be subject to a criminal probe and added they would also investigate his claims that data was switched as part of a conspiracy to discredit him.

The crime of fraudulently obtaining state funds can be punished by up to 10 years in prison, local media reported.

(Additional reporting by Kim Yeon-hee and Lee Jin-joo)