SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean prosecutors indicted disgraced cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk Friday on charges of fraud, embezzlement and bioethics violations in a scandal over faked stem cell research that shook the scientific community.
Five members of Hwang’s research team were indicted on lesser charges, prosecution official Lee In-kyu said in a nationally televised news conference.
Hwang was hailed worldwide as a stem cell pioneer and treated as a national hero until investigations late last year showed that he had fabricated key data, which had given hope for breakthrough treatments to such diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Hwang was charged fraud for accepting $2 million in private donations based on the outcome of the falsified research and for allegedly embezzling nearly $900,000 in private and government research funds, Lee said. He also allegedly paid money to receive human eggs for research, a violation of the country’s bioethics law.
Hwang was unreachable for comment Friday.
Charges not linked directly to research
Of the researchers, three were charged with fraud, one with tampering with research samples and one with bioethics violations. Lee said none of the six would be detained, but did not elaborate.
But no charges were filed directly linked to the research. “There has been no precedent in the world” of bringing criminal charges for fabricating academic papers, Lee said.
The scientist had claimed that he created the world’s first cloned human embryos and extracted stem cells from them. Those claims published in academic journals in 2004 and 2005 had offered hope of new treatments for millions of patients suffering from paralysis and debilitating diseases.
Stem cells are basic human cells that can develop into nearly any kind of tissue.
Hwang acknowledged publicly that he inflated data, but accused other researchers of deceiving him with falsified research results.
'Under psychological pressure'
Prosecutors accepted that a junior researcher led Hwang into believing that the team successfully created patient-specific stem cells. Kim Sun-jong, who was indicted for tampering, committed the wrongdoing “under psychological pressure” to accomplish his duties and “out of desire to succeed as a scholar,” Lee said.
Hwang maintains he has the technology to do what he claimed. But South Korea’s Health Ministry withdrew his research license, preventing him from cloning human embryos or receiving eggs for such work.
After the research was discredited, he was fired from his post as a professor at Seoul National University’s veterinary department and the government conducted a probe into his finances.
Auditors said in February that it was unclear how Hwang spent $2.6 million he received in government funds and private donations.
Through last year, Hwang received $33 million in government funds for his research as well as $6.4 million in private donations, the audit board said.
Outside the prosecutors’ office in Seoul, about two dozen supporters called for Hwang to continue his research.
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