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Cloning Scandal Pains South Korea

Doubts about a famed stem cell researcher's work mount. To many, the blow feels personal.

December 17, 2005|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — South Koreans mouthed a collective "Say it ain't so" Friday amid mounting accusations that their most celebrated scientist, Hwang Woo Suk, had fabricated results of his world-famous research into cloned stem cells.

Hwan has admitted errors in a report published in May, but says he will prove his claim of producing 11 human stem cells from patients once he defrosts and analyzes samples in his laboratory. The analysis is to be completed in 10 days.

But this episode is already being felt as a national tragedy. Some graduate students had tears in their eyes Friday as they watched the 53-year-old veterinarian defend himself during a news conference at Seoul National University.

Even as they awaited the results, South Koreans were visibly dejected by the apparent downfall of a man they thought had embodied the entrepreneurship and creativity to which their country aspires.

"I feel like crying," said Park Mi Young, a 44-year-old office worker who was chatting with her equally glum friends at a subway entrance. "I can't bring myself to watch the television news."

Hwang not only enjoyed financial support from the government, he had a virtual cheering squad in 44 million South Koreans. On an Internet site called "I love Hwang Woo Suk," a fan wrote that not since the exploits of a 16th century military hero, Adm. Yi Sun Shin, had people been "so proud to be Korean."

Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, worked with Hwang and his researchers in South Korea over the summer.

"They're like the Beatles," he said. "If we would go to a restaurant, we'd get mobbed.... [Hwang] would joke to me, 'I'm like the Korean president or the Korean Elvis.' "

Doctors here said they feared that the allegations, if proved, could damage the reputations of their scientific and medical communities and set back keenly anticipated research on thus-far-incurable conditions.

"This hurts all of us," said Kim Tae Ho, a 31-year-old neurosurgeon at Seoul Paik Hospital. "It is very difficult for patients too because they had expectations that this research would lead to a cure for spinal and brain injuries."

Many researchers remain confident, however, that the approach Hwang used will ultimately produce useful therapies.

Attacks on Hwang's credibility continued to mount Friday. Hwang had barely finished speaking when one of his key collaborators on the paper published in May held a news conference in which he accused the veterinarian of lying.

"He is avoiding taking the responsibility he should," complained Dr. Roh Sang Il, chairman of Seoul-based MizMedi Hospital, which supplied human eggs for the research. He said the hospital would conduct its own examination of DNA to ascertain whether the stem-cell lines in fact came from the purported donors.

On Friday, Hwang requested that the paper on donor-specific stem cells published by the U.S. journal Science be retracted. Although maintaining that the integrity of the research was not compromised, he said the paper was flawed.

Scientists also are raising questions about Hwang's other experiments. An unnamed geneticist was quoted today in the English-language Korea Times asking for an investigation into Hwang's claim this summer to have cloned an Afghan dog. Without citing specific evidence, the geneticist said it was conceivable that the purported clone was in fact an identical twin created several years after the original from an egg that had been divided and frozen.

The dog, named Snuppy for "Seoul National University Puppy," was designated 2005 Invention of the Year by Time magazine.

Despite the doubts, some South Koreans were standing by Hwang.

"All the great scientific achievements were confronted by outsiders. Dolly the Sheep had problems. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was challenged," said Kang Sang Koo, a security guard at the hospital.

Hwang's personal history resonates with many South Koreans. He was born Dec. 15, 1952, during the Korean War in a desolate village in South Chungcheong province.

His mother, widowed when he was 5, supported the family by raising a single cow. Hwang later attributed his decision to become a veterinarian to his childhood efforts to care for the cow. According to a biography of the researcher published this year, one of his high school teachers slapped him because he refused to go to medical school.

As a veterinarian, Hwang has been often disparaged by South Korea's medical establishment. He nonetheless rose to command a large research operation that handled up to 400 pig and cow eggs each day. He boasted that he and his graduate students worked from 6 a.m. to midnight.

"No Saturday. No Sunday. No holidays. That's my motto," he told the Los Angeles Times last year.

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