Pioneer in cloning quits post

S. Korean researcher apologizes for lies about human eggs source


TOKYO -- The South Korean stem cell researcher who won world acclaim as the first scientist to clone a human embryo and extract stem cells from it apologized yesterday for lying about the sources of some human eggs used in his research and stepped down as director of a new research center.

After months of denying rumors that swirled around his Seoul laboratory, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk confirmed that in 2002 and 2003, when his research had little public support, two of his junior researchers donated eggs and a hospital director paid about 20 other women for their eggs.

On several occasions before that, he had said he did not use eggs harvested from subordinates on his staff and that no one was paid for egg donations.

"Being too focused on scientific development, I may not have seen all the ethical issues related to my research," Hwang, a veterinarian by training, told a packed news conference in Seoul. "I should be here reporting the successful results of our research, but I'm sorry instead to have to apologize."

He said the staff donations took place without his knowledge.

"We needed a lot of ova for the research, but there were not enough ova around," Hwang said at the news conference, referring to 2003. "It was during this time when my researchers suggested making voluntary donations. I clearly turned it down."

But he said he later discovered they had donated eggs under false names in 2003.

Although the egg donations by the junior researchers were not considered a legal or ethical violation, critics say that in the strict hierarchy of a scientific laboratory in a Confucian society such as Korea, junior members often feel great pressure to please their superiors.

Under international medical ethics standards, researchers are warned against receiving eggs from members of their own research teams who are deemed to be in a dependent relationship.

Payment for eggs was not illegal in 2003, but it was banned in January when a South Korean biotechnology ethics law went into effect.

Hwang and his team won international acclaim in 2004 for being the first to produce stem cells from cloned human embryos, a major step, his backers hope, to eventually treating such maladies as Alzheimer's disease and spinal cord injuries.

But the human eggs ethics controversy may give ammunition to opponents who warn that his work could lead to human cloning.

His team also cloned a dog, an Afghan named Snuppy, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine. It declared his team's feat this year's most amazing invention.

The fall from grace is a blow to South Korea, where Hwang had become the modern high-tech face that the striving nation seeks to project to the world.

Only last month, his research center, the World Stem Cell Hub, was opened with $132 million from the South Korean government.

Plans were announced to open affiliated cloning centers in San Francisco and London. Yesterday, as part of what he called "repentance," Hwang resigned as head of the new center.

Hwang's international reputation is now expected to suffer over his admissions that he lied to an international scientific journal over eggs obtained in what many see as an ethically murky manner. The problem with the eggs may also cloud plans to expand research to the United States.

Two weeks ago, on Nov. 12, discussions about the ethics of some of the human egg-gathering became public when Gerald P. Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, Hwang's American partner, announced that he was severing relations with him.

In a written statement, on which he has since refused to elaborate, Schatten said his decision was grounded solely on concerns regarding egg donations in Hwang's research.

This prompted Roh Sung-il, the administrator of MizMedi Hospital in Seoul, to disclose at a news conference on Monday that during 2002 and 2003, he made payments of $1,400 to each woman who donated eggs.

Egg donation is an unpleasant procedure that involves a week of daily hormone shots, culminating with the extraction of eggs through a hollow needle. "For those who go through discomfort and sacrifice, it seemed natural to give some money as compensation," Roh told reporters.

Yesterday, Hwang said he had wondered why MizMedi Hospital had become a regular source of eggs, while other hospitals were having difficulties.

"I raised the matter but Roh Sung-il, the administrator of MizMedi Hospital in Seoul, said that there were no problems in the procurement process, and I did not raise the issue afterward," he told reporters.

Confirming the other long-standing rumor, South Korea's Health Ministry said yesterday that an ethics probe at Seoul National University had found that the two junior scientists had given their own eggs. But the ministry said those donations did not violate ethics guidelines because they were made voluntarily.

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