S. Korean scientist denies deception

October 28, 2006|By Bruce Wallace | Bruce Wallace,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEOUL, South Korea -- Much of the world may have dismissed him as a scientific charlatan, but discredited stem cell scientist Hwang Woo Suk is still not conceding a thing to his accusers.

And those human stem cells he claimed to have cloned in 2005 that his former university later found to have been fabricated?

They were human stem cells, Hwang insisted in Seoul's District Court this week, which is hearing charges that the scientist broke bioethics laws and embezzled more than $2 million from money donated to his research program. Hwang said he could prove he cloned human cells - if Seoul National University will give him back his samples.

What about the falsified research in two papers on cloning that sealed his reputation as a national hero in Korea and, temporarily, made Hwang the toast of the global science community?

He's still blaming the researchers at his lab, accusing them of deceiving him. "I don't even know the means to fabricate a DNA test," Hwang testified.

Hwang even had a new explanation for some of the missing money. A chunk went to the Russian mafia, he told the court, to buy tissues from long-extinct mammoths that he was trying to clone.

"Some of the money was spent in contacting the Russian mafia as we tried to clone mammoths," Hwang testified. "But you can't say that [on the books], so we expensed it as money for cows for experiment."

South Korean media reports suggested that Hwang was not referring to a large criminal enterprise, but rather to the times when his team was traveling in remote areas of Russia in search of mammoth tissues and had money extorted from them.

People were more credulous of Hwang back in 2004 when the veterinary researcher, with a long record of claiming to have cloned cows, published a scientific paper that declared he had solved the complexities of creating a human embryonic stem cell.

Over the next few months, Hwang was feted as a national hero and embraced by Korean politicians happy to bask in his celebrity. They poured public money - $65 million by some estimates - into a program that seemed to herald a new age of therapeutic cloning.

But doubts about his work soon emerged.

Ethical questions were raised when he was discovered - and later admitted - to have paid female researchers on his staff to donate their eggs for his cloning work. The scandal soon spread to the substance of the cloning itself, with associates questioning Hwang's data, and DNA profiling suggesting that nine of the 11 stem cell lines he claimed to have created in 2005 were, in fact, the same.

The furor led to a review by the university that concluded that Hwang had intentionally faked the data and that there was nothing to prove he had ever cloned a human stem cell line.

The university fired him in May, just as prosecutors laid charges. In addition to pursuing what they say are financial links between Hwang and leading South Korean politicians, they have questioned the amount of cash flowing through several family-related bank accounts.

Hwang has apologized for the controversy but maintains he is a victim of a conspiracy to discredit his work.

He finally got his day in court this week, parrying suggestions that some of millions of dollars donated to his research were diverted to better his lifestyle. He described demands on him for money, from the housing and travel expenses of junior researchers to the costs of greasing the palms of employees at the local butcher shops where he would go to acquire animal ovaries.

Hwang is making his case to a smaller, more skeptical audience these days. Koreans had initially rallied to him in sympathy, refusing to believe that a national hero could be crooked. But the mood has darkened in the last few months, and coverage of his trial has been muted, lacking the frenzied atmosphere that surrounded the initial scandal.

"About 55 percent think he's guilty; 45 percent say innocent," said Dr. Lee Jong Hun during a break from his rounds at Seoul National University's medical center. "There are still some people who want to believe in him, who think it is all the media's fault. They hope the trial will exonerate him."

But, Lee said, even those who believe he's innocent are not as enthusiastic about their support as they once were.

The trial is adjourned until Nov. 14. Hwang's lawyers refused to speculate on when a verdict might be reached or say how long it would take to present their defense case.

Bruce Wallace writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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