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Fallen stem cell scientist blames a conspiracy

The South Korean researcher testifies that he was deceived by his lab assistants and that he can prove his work.

October 28, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — Much of the world may have dismissed him as a scientific charlatan, but fallen stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk is not conceding a thing to his accusers.

Those human stem cells he claimed to have cloned in 2005 that his former university later found had 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 the money donated to his research program.

Hwang said he could prove that he cloned human stem cells -- if Seoul National University would give him back his samples.

What about the research -- later found to be falsified -- in two papers on cloning that sealed his reputation as a national hero in South 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.

He 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, so we expensed it as money for cows for an experiment."

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

People were more credulous of Hwang 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 South 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, in which fatal diseases might be overcome.

But doubts about Hwang's 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 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, and prosecutors filed charges.

In addition to pursuing what they say are financial links between Hwang and leading South Korean politicians, prosecutors 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 got his day in court this week, parrying suggestions that some of the millions of dollars donated to his research were diverted to better his lifestyle. He described a litany of financial demands on him, including the housing and travel expenses of junior researchers and the costs of greasing the palms of employees at the butcher shops where he acquired animal ovaries.

Hwang is making his case to a smaller, more skeptical audience. South Koreans had initially rallied around him in sympathy, refusing to believe that a national icon 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% think he's guilty; 45% 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 think he is 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.

Hwang's lawyers say their client, who is not in jail, plans to conduct more tests to prove he can do what he had claimed.

"He must have had his personal reasons for what happened," said Kang Sang-hyong, 32, as he waited with his infant daughter for an appointment at the university medical center. "But no matter what happens at the trial, the stem cell research must go on. This research is very, very valuable."

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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