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South Korean stem cell probe widens

/ Source: The Associated Press

South Korean prosecutors investigating disgraced stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk said Friday they were barring more of his collaborators from leaving the country.

Prosecutors raided eight more offices of Hwang's former associates, a day after they searched Hwang's home in southern Seoul, said Hong Man-pyo, the prosecutor in charge of the criminal investigation.

Hwang publicly apologized Thursday for faking data in papers published in 2004 and 2005 that purported to show his team created stem cells from the world's first cloned human embryos. He claimed he was deceived by fellow researchers.

During a nationally televised news conference, the scientist once known as the "Pride of Korea," stood by his claims that some of the cloned embryonic stem cells at his lab had been maliciously switched, repeating his call for prosecutors to investigate.

Hwang has claimed his cell lines were switched with those created at Seoul-based Mizmedi Hospital, using regular, not cloned human embryos.

"The investigation will focus on the cell-switch allegations and we will also cooperate with the Board of Audit and Inspection to look into charges of misappropriation of research funds," Hong told The Associated Press, adding it was not yet clear if Hwang would also face fraud charges, a crime punishable for up to 10 years in prison.

The Board of Audit and Inspection said it would launch an audit of national funds provided for Hwang's research next week.  The examination, to be completed in February, would focus on whether correct procedures were followed in awarding the funds, the agency said in a statement.

As of the end of last year, Hwang received $42 million in government funds for his research as well as $4.35 million from private foundations, the agency said.

Seoul National University, where Hwang works, concluded Tuesday that he fabricated both the 2004 and 2005 papers, dealing a devastating blow to his reputation as a pioneer in the field of embryonic stem cells, which scientists hail as holding the key to finding cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's and diabetes.

The Washington-based journal, Science, which had published Hwang's two bogus stem cell reports announced Thursday it was retracting both unconditionally.

Hwang said in December that he would quit his professorship, but has yet to tender his resignation.