Friday, January 13, 2006

Hwang apologizes on January 12, 2006 but blames colleagues at Mizmedi

On January 12, 2006, Professor Hwang Woo-suk (of Seoul National University [SNU]) asked forgiveness from fellow South Koreans for his fraudulent claims of human stem cell breakthroughs, but blamed the scandal on junior researchers who he said deceived him.

Hwang, in his first public appearance in nearly three weeks, continued to insist that he had the technology to use cloning to create human embryonic stem cells genetically matched to patients — saying he could do so in six months if he had access to enough human eggs.

Hwang's university [SNU] on January 10, 2006 issued investigation results saying that he fabricated landmark published claims in 2004 (published in Science in 2004) to have created the world's first stem cells from a cloned human embryo.

The Seoul National University previously ruled that another Hwang article last year on patient-specific stem cells was fake.

''The use of fake data ... is what I have to take full responsibility for as first author,'' Hwang told a nationally televised news conference. ''I acknowledge all of that and apologize once again.''

''I ask for your forgiveness,'' Hwang said. ''I feel so miserable that it's difficult even to say sorry.''

However, Hwang repeated his earlier claims that he was deceived about the data by two junior scientists at a partner research hospital, and said that he believed that his papers were legitimate when they were published.

He said the junior researchers at Seoul-based Mizmedi Hospital lied to him when they said they successfully culled and grew stem cells from human embryos cloned by Hwang's team.

''We believe they completely deceived (us) with their research results,'' Hwang said. ''Relying on the role and responsibility of Mizmedi Hospital, we trusted their reports 100 percent.''

Hwang has called for prosecutors to investigate his claims that some of the cloned embryonic stem cells at his lab had been maliciously switched with those created at Mizmedi, using regular, not cloned, human embryos.

Prosecutors raided Hwang's home in southern Seoul earlier Thursday, seizing evidence related to their investigation into the stem cell fraud, prosecution official Kim Hang-soo said.

The government has said it would launch an audit of national funds provided for Hwang's research.

The Seoul National University report on Tuesday, although it shot down Hwang's stem cell breakthroughs, upheld another of his claims to fame: that he created the world's first cloned dog — an Afghan hound named Snuppy.

The journal Nature, which published Hwang's cloned-dog article, said Tuesday that preliminary results from its independent tests also showed that Snuppy was indeed a clone.

Hwang claimed that his team would be able to clone human stem cells if given the right conditions.

''I think we can create patient-specific stem cells in six months if eggs are sufficiently provided,'' he said.

Scientists hope one day to use stem cells to treat afflictions including Alzheimer's disease by allowing patients to grow replacement tissue using their own stem cells.

Hwang also blamed himself for being too caught up in his research to not see the problems around him.

''We were crazy, crazy about work,'' he said. ''I was blinded. All I could see was whether I could make Korea stand in the center of the world through this research.''

Hwang also said his team had succeeded in extracting stem cells from genetically modified pigs using his cloning technology. He also claimed his team has submitted a paper on the successful cloning of a ''special animal,'' which he did not identify but said would be an ''achievement surpassing that of Snuppy.''

He also admitted that he gave prior consent to a female subordinate to donate her own eggs for research and collected letters from other researchers, pledging to donate eggs — an act widely considered unethical as it could involve possible coercion.

After almost a year of denial, Hwang acknowledged in November that he used eggs from two junior researchers, but said he wasn't aware of it until later. He also admitted at the time some of the eggs his used for research were bought, unlike his previous claims they were donated.

Wearing a suit and tie, Hwang — once dubbed the ''Pride of Korea'' — was surrounded by about two dozen current and former students. Some broke into tears during Hwang's speech.

A dozen of Hwang's staunch supporters rallied outside the press conference venue in central Seoul, holding a banner saying "Professor Hwang, cheer up. We still stand behind you."

"I don't care if the papers were faked or not," said Jeong Ha-gyun, who attended Hwang's news conference in a wheelchair. Jeong, head of the Korea Spinal Cord Injury Association, was paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident 21 years ago.

"I think we should give him a chance to prove he has the technology," the 50-year-old said. "When it's proved he can't do it, it's not too late to throw stones at him." [from AP]

There is also a report from Reuters which includes the text:

Hwang's news conference lasted about an hour and ended when he walked off stage to the tears and hugs and several laboratory assistants and supporters who had been flanking him.

The Seoul central prosecutor's office said it obtained search warrants for 26 places related to the research led by Hwang's team. These included his home and office, a Seoul hospital from which human eggs were procured and the homes of team members.

The prosecutor's office would not say whether any of the searches had been carried out, but South Korean media said Hwang's home and office had already been targeted.

Prosecutors would not give details of their probe. Prior to the reported raids, they said Hwang may be subject to a criminal probe and added they would also investigate his claims that data was switched as part of a conspiracy to discredit him.

The crime of fraudulently obtaining state funds can be punished by up to 10 years in prison, local media reported.

As a headsup, on January 11, I submitted a lengthy article on the Hwang matter to a journal.

As a separate headsup, note that the Schatten US patent application claims priority through a provisional application. The claim to a cloned human being will prove problematic.


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