Light sentence for disgraced Korean cloning scientist

Hwang Woo-suk, a South Korean scientist whose cloning 'breakthroughs' were exposed as frauds, received a suspended two-year jail sentence Monday.

Ahn Jung-hwan/AP
South Korean disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk (second from left) is greeted by supporters as he leaves the Seoul Central District Court after his trial on Monday.

South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk got a light sentence Monday for faking stem-cell research in a case that scandalized the scientific community and shocked Koreans who had elevated him to the status of a national hero.

A court here said Mr. Hwang's offense was "grave" since he had "violated laws to use human eggs" for his research and then bilked the government of more than $700,000 in grants. But it dismissed charges that he had also cheated two companies by accepting nearly $2 million from them on the basis of his fraudulent claims.

Hwang, who had a following of thousands of die-hard fans, convinced the court that he had "repented for his crime." After prosecutors asked for four years in prison, the court sentenced him to two years – and then suspended it providing he stays out of trouble for three years.

The verdict and sentence marked the end of a saga that began with Hwang claiming a major scientific breakthrough five years ago in which he said he had obtained stem cells from a cloned human embryo. His claims raised hopes scientists could regenerate vital tissues lost or damaged by disease.

A dog named Snuppy

Hwang got more headlines a year later for his supposed success in breeding the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound. He delighted in showing off the hound at Seoul National University, where he did his research in the veterinary science department. The dog was named Snuppy, a play on the university's initials.

Some Korean scientists now say they had doubts about Hwang all along – and play down the impact of his case on the nation's reputation.

"Dr. Hwang is not a scientist actually," says Yoo Ook-joon, chairman of biomedical engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the country's leading scientific research institution. "No quality researchers worked for him, no postdoctoral researchers worked for him. He was trying to hide everything."

Hwang, after his claims were published in the prestigious journal Science, was hailed among Koreans for having demonstrated the ability of Korean scientists to do creative, original research on a globally recognized scale. His work was seen as a departure from the derivative kind of research for which Korean scientists are known.

His claims fell apart, however, after a collaborator, Gerald Schatten, a distinguished medical biologist at the University of Pittsburgh who had collaborated on the second of his two major papers, dissociated himself from the project. An investigation conducted at Seoul National University showed that he had obtained eggs for experimentation from his own female researchers – a major breach of ethics – and then had fabricated test results.

A fraud with fans

Even so, Hwang was such a charismatic figure that he had thousands of fans who organized demonstrations and an Internet campaign on his behalf.

Although Hwang's papers in Science seemed "questionable for me," says Dr. Yoo, "I didn't know he was faking."

Despite the national disgrace of Hwang's case, Yoo doubts if it will have any real impact on his work or that of his staff. "Everybody is supportive of what our people are doing," he says.

As for the case of Hwang, "I don't think it's a big deal," says Yoo. "Every country has that kind of person. We have many, many quality scientists in Korea."


Laboratory ethics: What makes some scientists cheat?

South Korea faces blow to stem-cell prowess

What's next for Korea's stem-cell research?

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