June 20, 2006

Trial Starts for S.Korean Stem Cell Scientist

By Lee Jin-joo

SEOUL -- South Korea began the trial of disgraced stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk on Tuesday with prosecutors charging the man once hailed as a national hero with fraud and embezzlement.

Hwang was indicted last month after prosecutors said he was the mastermind of an elaborate scheme to manipulate research results to make it look like his team had actually produced stem cell lines through cloning human embryos.

His reported breakthroughs in stem cell research had raised hopes because it seemed to hasten the day when genetically specific tissue could be grown from embryonic stem cells to repair damaged organs or treat diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Prosecutors charged Hwang with misusing and embezzling 2.8 billion won ($2.91 million) in state funds and private donations.

Hwang is suspected of using part of the funds to purchase human ova -- in violation of a bioethics law that went into effect in 2005 -- and for donations to politicians, they said.

Prosecutors called witnesses who testified about how Hwang's team may have skirted proper regulations for grants.

One researcher for Hwang's team said even if junior associates noticed any irregularities, they could not question the boss.

"I was in a position where I could not disobey what Dr. Hwang said," Yoon Hyun-soo testified.

Hwang did not speak to reporters when he entered the Seoul Central District Court.

The scientist has previously said that he is a victim of a conspiracy to discredit him and has blamed junior researchers at a fertility clinic that took part in the research for the fake data.

His supporters turned out in force and occupied several rows of seats in the packed court room. They have said Hwang created a great Korean technology and deserved more time to prove his findings.

"All these people here are patriots," one supporter said to Hwang as he left the court room for a break.

The man once hailed by the government and others as "the pride of Korea" could face several years in jail if he is found guilty.

Prosecutors have said the misuse of state funds carries a jail term of up to 10 years while a violation of the bioethics law can mean up to three years behind bars.

Hwang's team once basked in global acclaim for three landmark achievements that put South Korea at the global forefront of cloning and stem cell research.

In a paper published in the periodical Science in 2004, Hwang's team said it had cloned the first human embryo for research. In 2005, Hwang's team published another paper in Science saying it had produced tailored embryonic stem cells.

The team last year also said it produced the world's first cloned dog. Dogs are considered one of the most difficult animals to clone because of their reproductive cycle.

A panel at Seoul National University, where Hwang once worked, said in a report in January Hwang's team had fabricated key data in the two papers on embryonic stem cells. The journal Science later retracted them.

The panel concluded Hwang's team did actually clone the dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy.

(With additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz)