January 16, 2006

S.Korea Questions Researchers Over Stem Cell Scandal

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean prosecutors questioned junior researchers on Monday, part of a team led by disgraced cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk, over possible crimes linked to science fraud, prosecutors and local media said.

Last week, a panel at Seoul National University, where Hwang worked, said the team fabricated data in two papers once hailed as landmark works in the study of embryonic stem cells, adding Hwang bore major responsibility.

Local media said seven researchers were questioned, but did not name them. They are believed to be the first questioned by prosecutors. Prosecutors confirmed researchers were interrogated, but did not say how many or give further details.

TV networks showed footage of the researchers entering and leaving the prosecutors' office.

The group included five researchers affiliated with a Seoul hospital that supplied human eggs to Hwang's team and two working directly with him, local media reported.

Separately, the Board of Audit and Inspection said on Monday it would investigate the use of state money for the research.

Hwang's team received 41.7 billion won ($42.2 million) in government funds and 4.3 billion won in private money from 1995 to 2005, the board said in a statement. Fraudulently obtaining state funds can be punished by up to 10 years in jail.

Hwang admitted to fraud in his papers at a news conference last week but said he was the victim of a conspiracy to discredit him, adding he had the technology to prove his team's claims.

He charged the Seoul hospital that supplied the eggs with being behind the conspiracy.

Last week, prosecutors raided more than 30 places associated with the research, including Hwang's home and lab. They have also banned about 30 people involved in the research from traveling overseas, including Hwang.

Hwang had once been a hero in South Korea and last year the government awarded him the title of the country's first "supreme scientist."

The government has stripped him of that title. Hwang resigned from Seoul National University and could face a prison sentence if is found to have misappropriated state funds, prosecutors have said.

Last week, the U.S. periodical Science which published the debunked papers from Hwang's team said it would retract the team's 2004 article on producing the first cloned human embryos for research and a 2005 paper on producing tailored embryonic stem cells.

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.

($1=987.3 Won)

(With additional reporting by Lee Jin-joo)