The once bright future of a celebrated South Korean genetic scientist is now in doubt in the wake of a major ethics controversy. Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, once considered to be on a glide path to a Nobel Prize, has resigned from all official research positions in what he calls atonement for ethical lapses.
In a voice heavy with emotion, South Korean stem cell research pioneer Hwang Woo-suk announced his resignation Thursday as head of a newly established global research hub.
Live on national television, Dr. Hwang apologized for questionable ethical research practices, calling them "embarrassing and tragic".
Dr. Hwang confirmed media reports that two of his junior female researchers had donated their own eggs to be used in his experiments. International ethics guidelines forbid procuring eggs that way because of the potential for senior researchers to coerce or intimidate subordinate researchers into becoming donors.
Dr. Hwang said he urged his junior colleagues not to donate, but they did so without his knowledge, and under false names, because of a shortage of human eggs for the research.
Dr. Hwang, who was the first to clone a dog, rose to international status this year when he also became the first to clone human embryos and from them extract stem cells. Stem cells have the capacity to develop into many different cell types in the body and can replenish themselves without limit.
Dr. Hwang's advances were hailed as significant steps toward eventual stem cell-based therapies for a wide range of diseases, from diabetes to cancer. Last month, Dr. Hwang presided over the opening of the "World Stem Cell Hub" in Seoul.
In a separate admission, Thursday, Dr. Hwang says another twenty women were given monetary compensation in exchange for donating eggs for his research.
Commercial trade in human ova is illegal under a newly enacted South Korean law, but it was not illegal in 2003, when Dr. Hwang says the donations occurred. Previously, Dr. Hwang had maintained that all the human eggs used in his research had been obtained from voluntary donors eager to support his work.
The South Korean government a day earlier cleared Dr. Hwang of ethical violations, and generous South Korean financial support for stem cell research is likely to continue.
Dr. Hwang says despite the current setback, South Korea is likely to keep its position at the forefront of global stem cell research. He says even without his direct involvement, other prominent South Korean researchers will keep his country at the forefront of the science.
Ethical allegations are especially sensitive in Dr. Hwang's field, which deals with human reproductive cells. International critics, including the Bush Administration, oppose embryonic stem cell research because it results in the deliberate death of embryos, which some view as a form of human life.
The ethical controversy surrounding Dr. Hwang reached a crescendo last week when U.S. doctor Gerald Schatten cut off research ties with Dr. Hwang. It remains to be seen whether other international partners will follow suit and distance themselves from Dr. Hwang's research.