January 13, 2006

South Korean Prosecutors Widen Probe of Scientist Hwang

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL -- Disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk cannot leave South Korea because of a criminal probe, is facing an intensified investigation and will never publish a paper in a major journal again, experts and officials said on Friday.

Yet on Thursday, Hwang was defiant in saying he could reproduce the findings in two landmark papers that had been debunked because they were based on intentionally fabricated data. Hwang hinted that a conspiracy was out to undermine him.

Prosecutors raided six more sites related to his research on Friday and are also looking into charges that Hwang's team may have diverted $50,000 of research money to a junior team member to help cover up fraudulent data, local media reported.

On Thursday, prosecutors raided 26 places, including Hwang's home and laboratory, seizing scores of boxes of documents and several dozen computers, prosecutors said.

Hwang's collaborators were also feeling the pinch.

Prosecutors said on Friday they had extended travel bans to an additional 17 people involved in the landmark papers produced by the team, bringing to 28 the number of people, including Hwang, barred from leaving the country, South Korean media said.

Seoul National University said it would punish seven professors who were co-authors of the debunked papers. The seven could possibly lose their posts. Hwang has already quit his.

The U.S. journal Science said on Thursday it was withdrawing the two now-discredited studies about embryonic stem cells published by Hwang's team.

The apparent breakthroughs seemed to have fulfilled the basic premise of embryonic stem cell research -- the creation of perfectly matched batches of cells that could be used to study a person's disease, or to make grow-your-own tissue transplants.


Prosecutors have previously said they will look into Hwang's charges that junior researchers on his team manipulated data as part of a conspiracy to discredit him.

Hwang still has many supporters in South Korea who want the government to give him more time to prove his claims.

Hwang said on Thursday at a news conference that he was working on big breakthroughs, but medical researchers said that, after the fraud in his team's work, he would never be published again in a respected journal.

Yet one Seoul biomedical research company is trying to have Hwang join its operations, local broadcaster SBS reported.

Hwang had once been regarded as a hero in South Korea. He received millions of dollars of government money for research and the government awarded him the title of the country's first "supreme scientist."

It took back that award earlier this week after a Seoul National University investigation panel said in a report the two papers on embryonic stem cells were based on data that had been deliberately fabricated.

Korea Post, which produced a series of stamps showing a man rising from a wheelchair and embracing a loved one to mark the promise of Hwang's work, said they were recalling the stamps.

Bioethics experts said that, apart from any legal proceedings, Hwang had apparently violated the ethical norms of scientists by having his junior researchers donate their eggs for his research.

Hwang at first denied the charge. He later said he had known about the donations.

The investigation panel said that, not only did he know about the donations, his team used more human ova than reported and Hwang even went to the hospital with a research associate when she donated eggs.

"In the bioethics community, this is widely understood as utterly out of the realm of coherent human subject protections and a failure in the duties of a tenured professor," said Laurie Zoloth, director of Northwestern University's Center for Bioethics, Science and Society.

(With additional reporting by Lee Jin-joo)