Cloning scientist quits on admitting fake breakthrough

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The Independent Online

A South Korean scientist who claimed to have cloned a dog and offered hopes of a cure for intractable illnesses has left his position at Seoul National University after he was exposed as a sham who faked the results of stem-cell research.

Announcing his resignation Hwang Woo-Suk, the country's most famous scientist and professor at the university, regarded as South Korea's best academic institution, apologised for causing "such big shocks and disappointment".

He was seen as a national hero but his reputation was ruined after a panel of experts from the university accused him of "major misconduct that undermines the fundamentals of science".

The nine-member panel investigated after some of Professor Hwang's collaborators on a landmark paper on the production of "tailored" embryonic stem cells, published this year, said important findings were false.

But Professor Hwang insisted he had produced the technology to create the patient-specific cells, which could lead to genetically matched tissue being generated to treat diseases such as Parkinson's and severe spinal-cord injuries. South Korea commissioned stamps highlighting the potential of Professor Hwang's research; they depicted a person rising from a wheelchair, standing and embracing a loved one.

But the panel found he had faked the results of at least nine of 11 stem lines he claimed to have created in his paper in the US magazine Science last May. It is not yet known whether the other two were genuine, or whether his claim to have produced the technology is true.

Doubt has been cast on all of Professor Hwang's other research, including Snuppy, an Afghan hound hailed as the world's first cloned dog. The scientist led the team that claimed to have created Snuppy, (Seoul National University puppy), who lives in the campus animal hospital. He was presented to the world in August, with Professor Hwang posing smiling, the dog in his arms. The dog, now eight months old, gained worldwide fame, with Time magazine calling him "the most amazing invention" of 2005. Dogs are notoriously hard to clone because of the difficulties of working with canine eggs.Professor Hwang's other supposed "breakthroughs" are also subject to scrutiny, including an academic paper in 2004 on cloning the first human embryos for research. Roe Jung-hye, head of the university's research office, said the data on patient-matched cells was "intentionally fabricated, not an accidental error". He added: "It is difficult for Professor Hwang to avoid taking major responsibility." A leading American bioethicist, Laurie Zoloth, from Northwestern University, called the development "a heartbreaking turn for science and Korea". He said: "Without trust, we just cannot imagine science. This is utterly unacceptable." He said it would have a "profound impact" on stem-cell research, criticised by some because stem cells come from days-old embryos. "The opponents of the research will feel themselves vindicated," he said.

The South Korean government, which spent nearly $40m (£23m) on its star scientist's projects, said it was "miserable" about the revelation. Professor Hwang resigned last month as head of the World Stem Cell Hub, an international project that had planned to open centres in Britain and the US. He admitted using eggs from female workers at his laboratory, a violation of ethical guidelines.