SEOUL — Disgraced South Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk said on Tuesday he spent part of private donations for research to pay the Russian mafia for mammoth tissues to clone extinct elephant species.
Hwang, once celebrated as a national hero, was indicted in May on charges of fraud and embezzlement after prosecutors said he was the mastermind of a scheme to make it look like his team had produced stem cells through cloning human embryos.
He previously told a Seoul court that he spent part of more than $1 million in corporate donations for "peripheral activities related to research."
"Some of the money was spent in contacting the Russia mafia as we tried to clone mammoths," Hwang told the court during a hearing on Tuesday. "But you can't say that (on the expense claim) so we expensed it as money for cows for experiment."
Hwang previously said he obtained mammoth tissues from glaciers and tried to clone them three times but failed.
Prosecutors have charged Hwang with fraud to secure funds and misusing $2.9 million in state funds and private donations as well as violating bioethics laws in procuring human eggs for research.
An investigation panel at Seoul National University, where Hwang once worked, said his team fabricated key data in the two papers on embryonic stem cells that were once heralded.
Misuse of state funds carries a penalty of up to 10 years in jail, while violating the bioethics laws can lead to three years' imprisonment, prosecutors have said.
Hwang denied any of the funds were used for anything other than research. He described extra expenses incurred when trying to secure animal ovaries in addition to paying for junior researchers' housing and travel.
"Do you know how hard it is to secure four or five animal ovaries at butcher shops? You need to keep the workers there happy."
Hwang's research had raised hopes because it seemed to fulfil a promise of embryonic stem cell studies where tissues could be grown to repair damaged bodies and cure illnesses such as diabetes and severe spinal cord injuries.
Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.