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Four-Year Prison Term Sought in South Korea for Stem Cell Fraud

Reuters, August 24, 2009

South Korean prosecutors have told a Seoul court that Hwang Woo-suk should receive a four-year prison sentence for the scientific fraud that he committed in 2004 and 2005.

In addition to violation of bioethics laws, Hwang is also being charged with misappropriation of 2.8 billion won (approximately 2.25 million USD) in state funds. Although Hwang has apologized for his fraudulent reports, he has denied personal culpability, claiming that he was misled by junior researchers in his laboratory. Nevertheless, as one of the prosecutors explains, "The disappointment felt by the Korean people is enormous."

Formerly considered to be one of the world's leading experts in the field of stem cell research, Hwang suffered a catastrophic fall from the prestige that he had previously enjoyed when he was found, in November of 2005, to have fraudulently reported the successful cloning of human embryonic stem cells. Specifically, he had authored two articles which were published in the highly respected journal Science in 2004 and 2005, and which initially catapulted Hwang into the international spotlight for his reports of the world's first successful creation of human embryonic stem cells by cloning. The articles were later editorially retracted, however, when they were discovered to contain fabricated data, and Hwang quickly fell from fame to infamy. He subsequently confessed to charges of fraud, and was "indicted on embezzelment and bioethics law violations linked to faked stem cell research", according to media reports at the time. Additionally, he was expelled from the Seoul National University which had previously employed him, and the S. Korean government rescinded its financial support of his research and banned him from conducting further experiments on human cloning. To this day, the scandal has impacted S. Korean national law, which brought a formal halt to all experimentation on human cloning until this year. As Dr. Oh Il-hwan, a bioethics professor at the Catholic University Medical School in Korea, explains, "Hwang's fall discouraged the government from supporting stem cell studies. It also meant that researchers in the field were the objects of scorn." Nevertheless, an investigational team at Seoul National University did verify that Hwang's team had successfully produced the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named "Snuppy".

Hwang is not without his supporters, who have staged high-profile, emotional rallies in the court, imploring a verdict that will allow Hwang a second chance. According to Lee Bong-gu, a lawyer for Hwang, "The prosecutors are trying to tear apart Hwang's precious scientific evidence."

In 2006, with financial backing from his supporters, Hwang founded Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, which specializes in the cloning of animals and has produced several cloned dogs.

Hwang's trial has been dragging on for three years and is predicted to continue into a fourth year, having been bogged down by technical testimony from numerous scientists who have testified about Hwang's research. It is not known when a final verdict might be decreed.

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