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S Korea clone scientist convicted

Hwang Woo-suk arrives at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea - 26 October 2009
Hwang Woo-suk was a hero in South Korea until the revelations of fraud

A South Korean court has convicted the disgraced cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk of embezzlement over his stem cell research.

He was given a two-year sentence suspended for three years.

The 56-year-old scientist's work had raised hopes of finding cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's.

But his research was declared bogus in 2005, and he was put on trial the following year for embezzlement and accepting money under false pretences.

Hwang's research made him a South Korean hero until revelations that it was false shocked the nation.

"He was guilty of fabrication," the Seoul court said, adding that Hwang illegally diverted a portion of the money he received for non-research related purposes.

Prosecutors had demanded a four-year prison term. But despite the conviction for embezzlement, Hwang was cleared of separate fraud charges and the judge found that he had "truly repented for his crime". His two-year sentence has been suspended for three years.

Awe, then shock

As soon as his colleagues at Seoul National University had concluded Hwang's work had been "intentionally fabricated", Hwang resigned and apologised.

"I sincerely apologise to the people for creating shock and disappointment," he said, after his fall from grace in 2005.

ANALYSIS
BBC Seoul correspondent John Sudworth
John Sudworth, BBC News, Seoul

Hwang was hailed as a national hero in South Korea. He was awarded the title "supreme scientist" and heralded as a harbinger of a hi-tech, bio-tech future.

The real concern here is that there is damage to South Korea's international scientific reputation as a result of all this.

The claims he made back then held out real hope for sufferers of diseases like Parkinson's and cancer that these stem cell breakthroughs really would lead to improvements in medical care.

However he maintained that the science behind his work was sound, and that his country's scientists were still leading the field.

"I emphasise that patient-specific stem cells belong to South Korea and you are going to see this," he said.

The controversy caused shockwaves in South Korea, where the cloning pioneer was once widely considered a national hero.

However, Hwang and his team claimed to have created the world's first dog clone in 2005, an achievement which was independently confirmed.

Since 2002, he received $40m (£23m) in grants from the science and technology ministry alone.

In May 2005, Hwang published a paper in the journal Science, saying his team had extracted material from cloned human embryos that identically matched the DNA of 11 patients.

It was claimed such a technique could be the key to providing personalised cures for diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

SCANDAL TIMELINE
Feb 2004 Hwang Woo-suk's team declare they have created 30 cloned human embryos
May 2005 Team says it has made stem cell lines from skin cells of 11 people
Nov 2005 Hwang apologises for using eggs from his own researchers
Dec 15 A colleague claims stem cell research was faked
Dec 23 Academic panel finds results were 'intentionally fabricated'
Oct 2009 Hwang convicted of fraud over research

But an investigating university panel said that all 11 sets of data were derived from only two stem cell lines.

The panel said it still did not know whether those two stem cell clusters had actually been cloned.

"Based on these findings, data in the 2005 Science journal cannot be regarded as a simple accidental error but as intentional fabrication made out of two stem cells," the investigators said.

"This is a serious wrongdoing that has damaged the foundation of science," it said.

Scandal had earlier erupted when Hwang was forced to step down as chairman of South Korea's World Stem Cell Hub, after admitting that eggs for research were donated by his own female colleagues, in breach of guidelines.

The South Korean government stripped him of the license to carry out stem cell research in 2006, citing "ethical problems".

In his defence, Hwang has denied ordering his researchers to falsify results, saying at least one of them deceived him.

He has also denied he intentionally embezzled research funds, saying that absent-mindedness was to blame for any flawed book keeping.

Hwang still works in animal cloning at a local institute.

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SEE ALSO
Profile: Hwang Woo-suk
26 Oct 09 |  Asia-Pacific
South Korea's cloning controversy
11 Jan 06 |  Newsnight
Korea cloning expert questioned
27 Jan 06 |  Asia-Pacific
New blow to S Korea clone work
29 Dec 05 |  Asia-Pacific
South Korea clones glowing cats
14 Dec 07 |  Science & Environment
S Korea cloning pioneer disgraced
24 Nov 05 |  World
Q&A: Stem cells
19 May 05 |  Health



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