Accessibility links

Once a National Hero, South Korean Stem Cell Pioneer May Face Prison


The scientist who just a year ago was hailed as "the pride of Korea" now could face prison. Prosecutors in Seoul have indicted stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk on charges of misusing donations to fund work he knew to be fraudulent.

South Korean prosecutor Lee In-hyu on Friday revealed the long-awaited outcome of a criminal investigation of stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk.

Lee says Hwang is being charged with criminal fraud and embezzlement.

He is also accused of violating a law that forbids the purchase of human eggs for research.

Prosecutors say Hwang oversaw the deliberate forging of research data to show he had cloned patient-specific human stem cells. Because stem cells can grow into any other kind of cell, the alleged breakthrough generated high hopes for eventual tissue replacement therapies for diseases such as Alzheimer's and diabetes, and for spinal and nerve injuries.

Although prosecutors are not treating the data forgery in itself as a crime, they say Hwang's use of the data to obtain public and private financial support makes him guilty of fraud.

Lee adds the prosecution accuses Hwang of embezzling about three-million dollars in donations for his personal use. Some of the money, says Lee, was used to pay off politicians and business leaders. The rest, he says, was spent purchasing human eggs for research.

The charges against Hwang carry a possible prison sentence of three-to-10 years.

South Korean authorities have charged five members of Hwang's research team with various offenses related to the case. They and Hwang are free pending their trials.

Hwang has been in seclusion for months, and has offered no public reaction to Friday's charges. He has resigned all of his official posts, been fired as a university professor, and his government license to practice stem cell research has been revoked.

His lawyers in the past have defended Hwang and said he did nothing wrong. He has claimed he was misled by a junior scientist into thinking his team had made a breakthrough in stem cells.

Before his achievements were discredited, Hwang enjoyed a high degree of celebrity and national esteem. Even now, he has support from some South Koreans who believe he is the victim of an injustice.

South Korean broadcasters showed video Friday of some Hwang supporters breaking into sobs upon hearing the prosecutors' announcement. A group of die-hard loyalists is expected to hold a candlelight rally in his honor this weekend.

Whatever result Hwang's eventual trial may bring, he can still claim at least one scientific triumph. Experts agree he did succeed in producing the world's first cloned dog - named Snuppy - which celebrated its first birthday last month.

XS
SM
MD
LG