South Korean Scientist Apologizes for Deception

South Koreans who still consider scientist Hwang Woo Suk a national hero after his stem cell research was exposed as fraudulent, hold a vigil for him in Seoul.
South Koreans who still consider scientist Hwang Woo Suk a national hero after his stem cell research was exposed as fraudulent, hold a vigil for him in Seoul. (By Lee Jin Man -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 12, 2006

SEOUL, Jan. 12 -- Hwang Woo Suk, the disgraced South Korean stem cell scientist, offered an apology Thursday after his claims of major research breakthroughs in the past two years were discredited, but maintained his assertion that the information was doctored without his knowledge.

Saying he would take "full responsibility" for the deception, he nevertheless called for a full investigation into his allegations that others had tampered with his team's research. "I sincerely apologize to the nation and the international community for using erroneous data in the papers," Hwang, a professor of veterinary medicine at Seoul National University, said at a news conference. "I was responsible for going over the data thoroughly, and if I had done so, we would have been able to avoid this huge crisis."

Hwang's apology came two days after an academic panel at the university, where Hwang's team conducted much of its research, concluded that virtually all of his professed stem cell breakthroughs were faked. Hwang had risen to international fame as a result of his team's claims of having extracted stem cells from cloned human embryos, a technology that held out hope for millions of patients worldwide with currently incurable diseases.

The panel, while giving credence to Hwang's accomplishment last year of having created the first cloned dog, concluded that his team did not possess the basic cloned stem cell technology it had long professed.

The university apologized Wednesday for the scandal, with its president calling Hwang's fraud a "blemish on the whole scientific community, as well as our country" and a "criminal act in academia."

Hwang on Thursday stressed that the panel had not questioned the fact that his team had succeeded in cloning human embryos -- he maintains his team has cloned 101. But tests showing the lack of any verifiable stem cells extracted from those embryos indicated that his team had failed in taking the critical next step.

Hwang blamed two collaborating researchers at the MizMedi Hospital, a fertility clinic in Seoul where Hwang's team obtained most of the human eggs used in its research, for falsifying the data. The hospital's researchers had played a crucial role in Hwang's work because they were tasked with cultivating the cloned human embryos created by his team into actual stem cell lines.

Hwang admitted that he had been aware that women were being paid to provide eggs for his research, correcting himself from previous statements that such payments were made without his knowledge.

Hwang stressed the importance of seeing stem cell research continue, but it appeared unlikely that he would ever again be taking a prominent role.

Many in South Korea, including Hwang's boss, Chung Un Chan, the president of Seoul National University, appeared to be less than willing to extend Hwang another chance.

"Hwang's research team did something scientists should never do," Chung said in the public apology Wednesday. He said he had asked a committee to take unspecified disciplinary action against Hwang and the researchers involved in the scandal.

"For embarrassing the country, as the president of this university, I am deeply sorry to everyone," Chung said.

Hwang and his team are reportedly also facing an investigation from the public prosecutor's office into the alleged misuse of millions of dollars worth of government funding for their research. Prosecutors raided Hwang's home in southern Seoul earlier Thursday, seizing evidence related to their investigation, the Associated Press reported, citing a prosecution official.

Some South Koreans, however, continue to back Hwang -- claiming he was the victim of either duplicitous or incompetent junior researchers or colleagues. A few hundred people held a candlelight vigil in his honor Wednesday night, and some showed up at his news conference Thursday to express support.

"Hwang gave us hope and I still believe in his ability to cure us," said Jeong Ha Gyun, 50, president of the Korean Spinal Cord Injury Association, who has used a wheelchair for 21 years and became an acquaintance of Hwang. "We need to give him another chance."

The South Korean government, however, plans to withdraw Hwang's specially created title of "top scientist."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company