Scientist's stem cell claims fake

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Disgraced researcher Hwang Woo-suk faked all his landmark claims to have cloned human embryonic stem cells in a brazen scam and deserves punishment, his university said today.

The latest revelations doomed the South Korean veterinarian's reputation as a pioneer in the human cloning field, already tainted by the finding that his claim in 2005 to have efficiently developed 11 patient-specific stem cell lines was false.

Hwang "did not have any proof to show that cloned embryonic stem cells were ever created," an investigating panel at Seoul National University said in a report Tuesday, disputing claims in Hwang's 2004 paper in the journal Science purporting that he cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells from it.

However, the panel upheld Hwang's claims last year to have created the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy.

Scientists hope to someday use human stem cells - master cells that can grow into any body tissue - to cure diseases such as Alzheimer's and diabetes.

Creating stem cells genetically matched to a specific patient would be a breakthrough because they would not be rejected by the patient's immune systems.

But despite years of research, Hwang was the only person to claim success in extracting the cells from an embryo.

"The 2004 paper was written on fabricated data to show that the stem cells match the DNA of the provider although they didn't," the report said.

The reputation of Hwang - once dubbed "The Pride of Korea" - has eroded steadily in recent months with increasing questions about his work.

Last month, a devastating report by the university concluded that Hwang fabricated another article published in Science last year. The university's nine-member investigative panel said it could not find any of the 11 stem cell lines matched to patients, as Hwang had reported in that research.

Hwang had also come under fire for using eggs in his studies donated by junior researchers on his team. He conceded in November that two subordinate scientists had donated eggs without his knowledge and that other women were paid to take fertility drugs to produce eggs for research. Both practices are viewed as coercive and unethical.

The panel said today that one of the two researchers who donated eggs said that Hwang accompanied her to a clinic for the procedure. Hwang also received letters from female scientists on his team pledging to donate eggs, the panel said.

While the university could not determine the exact number of eggs Hwang used for his research, it said his lab used more than 185 as reported in the 2005 article.

Hwang has not made any public appearances since last month when he said he would resign his faculty position, and his whereabouts are unknown. Hwang said earlier that - despite any scandal over faked results - he has the technology to clone stem cells.

The university condemned his fabrications.

"This conduct cannot but be seen as an act that fools the whole scientific community and the public," today's report said. "Just based on the facts of the fabrications that have been disclosed, the penalty has to be severe."

Knocking down Hwang's purported breakthrough is a "temporary setback" for the field, though it could give new impetus for other laboratories to push forward with stem-cell development, a South Korean scientist said.

It can "serve as an opportunity for other scientists to expedite research in the area," said Park Se-pill, a stem cell scientist who heads the Maria Infertility Medical Institute in Seoul.

South Korean prosecutors are preparing their own investigation. South Korean media have said Hwang, who received massive government funding for his research, may also face charges of misappropriation of funds.

Research such as Hwang's is off-limits in many US labs because Washington restricts federal money for human embryonic stem cell experiments. Labs that depend on federal money cannot use it to create new embryonic cell lines as Hwang claimed he did.

Hwang had become a national hero in South Korea before his scientific advances fell under question.

He was designated the country's first-ever "top scientist" in June by the government, winning special funding. Korean Air even gave Hwang and his wife free first-class flights for a decade, calling the scientist a "national treasure."