Disgraced Cloning Expert Convicted in South Korea

By: Hying-Jin Kim - AP Writer
By: Hying-Jin Kim - AP Writer

A South Korean stem cell scientist once hailed as a hero for bringing hope to people with incurable diseases and creating the world's first cloned dog was convicted Monday on criminal charges related to faked research, but avoided jail.

The Seoul Central District Court sentenced Hwang Woo-suk to two
years in prison for embezzling research funds and illegally buying
human eggs. However, it suspended the penalty, allowing him to stay
free if he breaks no laws for three years.

Prosecutors had asked for four years in prison, but Judge Bae
Ki-yeol said the 56-year-old scientist had shown remorse and had
notable achievements in dog cloning.

Hwang, who appeared confident as he walked into the courthouse,
made no comment as he left. His lawyer, Yoo Chul-min, suggested in
an interview with the YTN television network that he would not
appeal, saying Hwang had been unable to concentrate on his research
because of the "time-consuming" trial.

Prosecutors were not immediately available for comment late
Monday.

The verdict was the culmination of a long fall from grace for a
man once hailed as a pioneer in stem cell research.

Hwang gained worldwide fame in 2004 when he and his former
colleagues at Seoul National University claimed in a paper
published in the journal Science that they had created the world's
first cloned human embryos - and had extracted stem cells from
them.

A year later, Hwang's team also claimed in the journal that they
had created human embryonic stem cells genetically matched to
specific patients, a purported breakthrough that promised a way to
withstand rejection by a patient's immune system.

Stem cell research is highly controversial, and Hwang had been
the only South Korean scientist allowed to carry out studies on the
master cells that scientists say could lead to revolutionary cures
for hard-to-treat diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

The South Korean government showered him with lavish perks,
designating him the country's first "top scientist," giving him
generous research funds and assigning personal bodyguards and a
diplomat to assist him with international contacts. Korean Air gave
Hwang and his wife free first-class flights for a decade, calling
the scientist a "national treasure."

But Hwang's reputation quickly eroded after questions about his
claims led to an investigation by a university committee. It
concluded that the 2005 paper was based on faked data, and also
cast doubt on the previous findings. The journal, Science,
retracted both papers.

The South Korean government stripped him of the right to conduct
stem cell research and other privileges in 2006.

He was charged later that year with fraud for allegedly
accepting some 2 billion won (about $2 million) in private
donations under false pretenses. He also was accused of embezzling
800 million won (about $800,000) and buying human eggs for research
in violation of South Korea's bioethics laws.

Hwang eventually admitted the data was faked but claimed he had
been deceived by a fellow researcher.

The trial, which heard testimony from more than 60 witnesses,
lasted more than three years. During an August hearing, Hwang
pleaded for leniency, saying he was ready to "pour the last of my
passion" into his research.

On Monday, Judge Bae dismissed the main fraud charge against
him, saying it was difficult to believe Hwang intended to deceive
donors to get funding.

Hwang, who with his Seoul National University team of scientists
created the first known cloned dog, Snuppy, in 2005, has focused on
cloning canines since being fired by the university and stripped of
the right to conduct stem cell research.

Hwang still has a loyal following, with dozens of supporters
rallying outside the court Monday and chanting "We trust Dr.
Hwang."

"This is a dire matter for us," said Choi Bu-am, a polio
victim who is a vice president of the Korea Culture Association for
the Disabled. "We want the government to allow Hwang to resume his
stem cell research."


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