Hwang, Embryonic Stem Cell Researchers Indicted for Fraud in South Korea

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 12, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Hwang, Embryonic Stem Cell Researchers Indicted for Fraud in South Korea Email this article
Printer friendly page

by Steven Ertelt
LifeNews.com Editor
May 12, 2006

Seoul, South Korea (LifeNews.com) — Hwang Woo-suk and some of his top colleagues have been indicted by South Korean prosecutors and charged with fraud, embezzlement and violating bioethics rules. The charges come at the end of an investigation into a scandal that has mired embryonic stem cell research in further controversy.

Five members of Hwang’s team were also indicted, including one scientist who worked in the laboratory of University of Pittsburgh researcher Gerald Schatten, a former collaborator with Hwang.

Hwang was charged with accepting $2 million in donations after he knowingly falsified the embryonic stem cell research by claiming his team had produced a cloned human embryo and cloned patient-specific embryonic stem cells.

If convicted, Hwang could spend as much as 10 years in jail.

Prosecutor Lee In-kyu also said Hwang embezzled $900,000 in private and government donations to the research. After getting more than $35 billion in research funds from the government and private donors, South Korean prosecutors say Hwang misused much of the money by laundering it through 63 bank accounts set up under false names.

Lee indicated Hwang’s team also paid for human eggs for research, which is a violation of the nation’s bioethics laws.

Ultimately, Lee said the fraud and violations hurt those who were placing their hopes in the unproven research to find cures.

Hwang and his team "indelibly hurt the people as well as the families and patients of hard-to-cure diseases," Lee said. "Some scientists abused the people’s high expectations and a lack of peer reviews and disregarded ethics of research to attain their own goals."

Meanwhile, junior researcher Kim Sun-jong, who was one of the scientists to break open the massive fraud the research team perpetrated, was charged with tampering with the teams stem cells.

According to an AP report, Kim misled Hwang with fake results "under psychological pressure" from Hwang and "out of desire to succeed as a scholar," Lee said. He indicated that junior researchers felt they could not challenge Hwang, who created a dominating presence within his team.

Though prosecutors accepted Hwang’s claim that his junior researchers misled him into thinking the stem cells had been cloned, Hwang "fabricated most of the data" to exaggerate his research team’s success.

Lee reconfirmed the results of a Seoul National University study that indicated all of Hwang’s team’s claims about human cloning and embryonic stem cell research successes were false.

Other researchers were charged with fraud and tampering with research samples, and another with bioethics violations. Neither Hwang nor the other researchers were arrested.

Hwang’s lawyer, Mun Hyong Sik, told local news agencies that Hwang will dispute the charges and maintained that Hwang was a victim of a conspiracy by his colleagues.

Hwang’s team published the results of the research in two papers in the scientific journal Nature, which has since revoked them after learning they were fraudulent.

After the announcement, some detractors said they wanted to see more from the prosecutors about how the government was responsible in propping up Hwang’s team and failing to see problems as they developed.

"Prosecutors spent all those months in investigation, and yet they don’t say anything about how much the government was involved and responsible," Song Sang Yong, chairman of the Asia Bioethics Association, told the International Herald Tribune.