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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 07:38 GMT
S Korea's 'disgraced' national hero
By Charles Scanlon
BBC News, Seoul

Professor Hwang Woo-suk announces his resignation
Many Koreans consider Dr Hwang the country's "brightest star"
It is not every scientist that boasts his own fan club. But Dr Hwang Woo-suk, South Korea's pioneering stem cell researcher, can count on 15,000 hard-core fans.

They are members of the "I love HWS" online community and their numbers have continued to rise despite his current difficulties.

Dr Hwang has been feted as a national hero since last year when his research team successfully cloned a human embryo, and produced stem cells that could one day provide cures for a range of disease from diabetes to Alzheimer.


But he looked chastened and remorseful when he finally appeared before the press on Thursday to answer allegations of questionable ethical practices in his laboratory.


The charges centred on the collection of human egg cells for his research and whether they were obtained voluntarily.

The world gasped in awe when I first showed the results of my research
Professor Hwang Woo-suk

Dr Hwang apologised to the nation for ethical lapses in his work. He said he had not been truthful about the source of some of the eggs and had been too focussed on results.

He said he was resigning from his official posts to show his contrition - but would continue as a researcher on the stem cell project.

"The world gasped in awe when I first showed the results of my research. I felt a national pride and tasted the confidence that we Koreans could achieve things too," he told a packed news conference.

"I was blinded by work and my drive for achievement."

Overwhelming support

The admission came as a shock to Koreans who have taken great pride in the pioneering work of the stem cell researchers at Seoul National University.

Professor Hwang Woo-suk and cloned puppy Snuppy
Dr Hwang oversaw the project that led to the creation of cloned dog Snuppy

The government has given generous financial support to the team, which aims to make South Korea the hub of a promising future technology.

But snap opinion polls on internet sites show Dr Hwang still had overwhelming support from the public.

Dozens more donors have come forward to offer their ova (eggs) so Dr Hwang can continue his work.

Among them are Kim Yi-hun and her two daughters, aged 19 and 22.

"I think that Dr Hwang is the brightest star of Korea in the 21st century and an innovative figure who could save the human race. His research is already well advanced and must continue whatever the cost," said Mrs Kim.

She said they were happy to offer eggs cells even though it's an extremely intrusive procedure with potentially damaging side effects.

With patriotic sentiment running so high, it has been hard for sceptics to be get their voices heard.

'Pressure' on researchers

Dr Koo Young-mo, a professor of medical ethics, was accused of disloyalty when he first tried to question Dr Hwang about his practices.

"Koreans are normally very stingy about organ donations, there's no tradition of it here, so I was very curious how the researchers had access to so many egg cells," he said.

He was struck by a report last year that a junior researcher in the laboratory offered her own egg at a time when supplies were running short.

"I was concerned that a junior member of the team could come under pressure - in a hierarchical society like our own, junior researchers could not even imagine resisting the wishes of her senior," he said.

Dr Hwang denied the allegation.

Confidence shaken

But the charge resurfaced when a key American collaborator, Dr Gerald Schatten of Pittsburgh University, abruptly resigned from the team indicating he had been deceived.

Dr Hwang now says two researchers did donate their eggs but they did it secretly against his wishes. When he found out he kept it secret to protect their wish for confidentiality.

He also admitted that other eggs had been bought from women, despite earlier claims that they had all been donated by volunteers.

The government says it will continue to support the team at Seoul National University.

Its pioneering work on stem cells will continue - no longer hampered by a shortage of eggs from healthy young donors.

But the confidence of international scientists, who looked to Dr Hwang as a leader in the field, has been shaken.

South Korea's ambition to be the hub for stem cell research has suffered its first setback as the scientists at Seoul National University struggle to regain their credibility.

See the professor apologise for his actions

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Q&A: Cloned human embryos
19 May 05 |  Science/Nature
Viewpoints: Human cloning
12 Feb 04 |  Health

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