Discredited stem cell scientist Woo Suk Hwang suffered a setback in his bid to reclaim respectability today when South Korea’s Supreme Court confirmed his conviction on embezzlement and bioethics violations. The court also sent Hwang's plea to overturn his dismissal from Seoul National University (SNU) back to a lower court for review and upheld previous rulings acquitting him of fraud charges.
The ruling comes 2 weeks after Hwang scored a victory of sorts in gaining a U.S. patent for a purportedly cloned human embryonic stem cell line.
Hwang claimed to have made several breakthroughs in embryonic stem cell research that proved to be based on fabricated data. In a February 2004 Science paper, Hwang's team announced the first stem cell line derived from a cloned human embryo. Then in May 2005, they reported the creation of several stem cell lines matched to specific patients. After questions emerged about the results, an SNU investigating panel concluded in December 2005 that there was no evidence to support the second Science paper; in its January 2006 final report, the panel stated that the data and images in the first Science paper too were fabricated. That month, Hwang publicly admitted that both Science papers were bogus, though he laid the blame on junior researchers. Both papers were immediately retracted, and SNU fired him in March. In October 2009, a trial court convicted him of embezzling research funds by using falsified data and of illegally buying human eggs for his research, but cleared him of fraud. The court imposed a 2-year suspended prison sentence. An appeals court upheld that verdict but trimmed the sentence to 18 months. (Hwang did not serve time in prison.) "Manipulating scientific data in papers cannot escape strict punishment," the high court wrote in today's decision upholding the appeals court ruling.
Hwang’s dismissal from SNU has proved to be a thornier legal issue. In November 2011, an appeals court found that the decision to fire him was "excessively heavy." The Supreme Court disagreed, and sent the case back to the appeals court for review in light of Hwang's now-finalized criminal convictions. SNU did not issue an official statement, but an unnamed university source quoted in a news agency report said that even if the appeals court were to find new grounds for supporting Hwang's position on his dismissal, his conviction on embezzlement and bioethics charges means that his relationship with SNU "has virtually ended.”
Since the scandal, Hwang, 61 and a veterinarian by training, has been working at the Seoul-based Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, concentrating on cloning animals, particularly dogs. One of his genuine accomplishments was being the first to clone a dog. Hwang could not be reached for comment.
On 11 February, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded Hwang and his former team a patent for the cloned human embryonic stem cell line of the sort described in the first Science paper. This came as a surprise, as the consensus view in the scientific community is that the stem cell line was not produced through cloning, but rather resulted from an unfertilized egg that started developing into an embryo, a phenomenon known as parthenogenesis. But the patent seemed to raise Hwang's hopes of rehabilitation. In a rare interview carried in The Dong-A Ilbo newspaper on 24 February, Hwang said he wanted to resume work on human stem cells, telling the paper: "I ask the Seoul government and the Korean people to give me just one more chance." Today’s ruling dims his chances of resuming work on human cells.