Disgraced Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang admitted in criminal court last week that he forged data to make his work on human stem cells look more credible. He also said he gave some research funds to Russian mafia figures in an attempt to launch a project to clone an extinct mammoth. But Hwang again claimed that his initial research was genuine.
Hwang was charged last May by prosecutors with fraud, embezzlement, and violation of bioethics laws (ScienceNOW, 12 May). In his latest testimony on 24 October, Hwang admitted that he had ordered researchers to duplicate photos for a 2005 Science paper (ScienceNOW 6 December, 2005). In the paper, Hwang and his colleagues claimed to have produced customized stem cell lines that were genetically matched to patients with spinal cord injuries or diabetes. Hwang said he told Sun Jong Kim, a researcher from MizMedi Hospital who was in charge of culturing stem cell lines, to make two lines look like 11, thus grossly exaggerating the efficiency of the process. (Investigations have shown that all 11 stem alleged customized stem cell lines were fraudulent, but Hwang claims that Kim duped him into thinking that at least two of the cell lines were genuine.)
Still, Hwang and his lawyers claim that he is innocent of the fraud charges, which require prosecutors to prove that Hwang deliberately falsified grant applications. Hwang says he still believes the core of his 2004 work was correct, and because that work formed the basis of the grants in question, he applied for the money in good faith.
The defense also said the embezzlement charges, involving funds provided by corporate sponsors, should be dropped, as most of the funds in question are accounted for or still in the bank. Hwang stood by his previous claims that suspicious personal items--such as a car for himself and his wife--were bought with money earned from lectures and publications. Hwang said that some of the allegedly misappropriated money was used for expenses in pursuing unsuccessful projects, which included an effort to clone a mammoth that involved the Russian mafia, and another project to clone a Siberian tiger native to North Korea. In official documents, he claimed to have used the money to buy cows for research.
Seoul National University (SNU) fired Hwang earlier this year, and he eventually relocated his lab--along with almost 30 of his former researchers--to a private laboratory in western Seoul (ScienceNOW, 23 August). Recently, the lab relocated again--this time to a "dilapidated shed for farming equipment," according to his lawyers. Hwang is continuing his animal stem cell research, as well as working on creating bio-organs, but his lawyer, Keun Hwa Jung, says that the scientist would still like to conduct further tests on his original cell line to prove that it was derived from a cloned blastocyst. SNU is refusing to give him the samples.
Despite his fall from grace, a core of Hwang fans--who once numbered in the thousands--remain loyal. They filled every seat in the courtroom and gave the fallen scientist a standing ovation as he was ushered out of the room.