S. Koreans Back Disgraced Scientist

By Joohee Cho
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 25, 2005

SEOUL, Dec. 24 -- In a candlelight prayer vigil on Christmas Eve, South Korean advocates of the country's dishonored stem cell scientist, Hwang Woo Suk, gathered to show support, saying research into custom-designed human embryonic stem cells must continue.

Thousands of Hwang's supporters, some wearing Santa Claus outfits and "I Love Hwang Woo Suk" ribbons, stickers and masks, walked slowly behind Buddhist monks performing the traditional three-steps and one-bow march to express repentance.

"We want a comprehensible explanation of what really happened," said Lee Jong Jin, 42, who came with his family. "I just can't believe it as it is."

Many South Koreans have expressed shock and confusion since an investigative panel at Seoul National University announced in an interim report Thursday that the celebrated scientist "intentionally fabricated" data on producing custom-designed stem cells in a paper published this year in the research journal Science.

The interim report said nine of 11 stem cell colonies either never existed or were never proved to be embryonic stem cells. A final report by the panel is expected early next week. It will include the results of DNA tests that are expected to reveal whether the other two cell lines are genetic matches to patients, as Hwang asserted.

As rapid as his two-year rise to fame was, Hwang's fall from grace has been even more meteoric.

Seoul National University refused to accept Hwang's resignation as a professor Friday, saying he must wait for the final report and hinting that he could face permanent expulsion from academia.

Some of Hwang's fellow authors on the paper said Saturday they did not know how their names got on the paper in the first place. In a statement on its Web site, Science said it was carefully reviewing the paper as well as another one published in 2004 on the first colonies of embryonic stem cells to be harvested from cloned human embryos.

South Korean media that had glamorized Hwang's achievements have also turned against him. Network television news showed Hwang's biography and children's books about the former national hero being removed from shelves. Blaming the debacle on the lack of transparency and verification procedures in academia, the media speculated that Hwang may have been pressured by excessive national expectations to speed up his research.

"Above all, Prof. Hwang has left a scar that will not easily heal on all Koreans who enthused over his research with wholehearted support," the JoongAng Daily wrote in an editorial. The national newspaper called for a thorough investigation and criticized the government's past lopsided support for Hwang.

Hwang insists that he made the landmark patient-specific stem cells but has said an insider may have switched them for fake ones. He has filed a request with the National Prosecutor's Office for an official investigation.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company