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Stem cell scientist apologizes to South Koreans

/ Source: The Associated Press

A disgraced South Korean researcher asked his nation’s pardon Thursday for fraudulent claims of stem cell breakthroughs, but said junior scientists deceived him and should share blame for the scandal.

“I ask for your forgiveness,” Hwang Woo-suk told a nationally televised press conference from Seoul in his first public appearance in nearly three weeks. “I feel so miserable that it’s difficult even to say sorry.”

Seoul National University, where Hwang is a professor, on Tuesday issued a final report that he fabricated landmark published claims in 2004 and 2005 to have cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells from it.

“The use of fake data ... is what I have to take full responsibility for as first author. I acknowledge all of that and apologize once again,” Hwang said.

However, Hwang repeated his earlier claims that he was deceived about the data by two junior scientists at a partner research hospital, and said that he believed that his papers were legitimate when they were published.

He said the junior researchers lied to him when they said they successfully culled and grew stem cells from human embryos cloned by Hwang’s team.

Hwang also claims that some of his stem cells were maliciously switched by other researchers in his lab. He stressed again Thursday that this “is a matter that should definitely be cleared up.”

Hwang, who at one point was on the verge of tears, also claimed that he has the technology to create patient-specific stem cells under the right conditions.

“I think we can create patient-specific stem cells in six months if eggs are sufficiently provided,” he said.

Scientists hope one day to use such technology to treat afflictions including Alzheimer’s disease by allowing patients to grow replacement tissue using their own stem cells.

Wearing a suit and tie and speaking in a subdued manner, Hwang was surrounded by about two dozen current and former students.

The government has said it would launch an audit of national funds provided for Hwang’s research. Prosecutors also raided Hwang’s home in southern Seoul earlier Thursday, seizing evidence related to their investigation into the stem cell fraud, prosecution official Kim Hang-soo said.

The president of Seoul National University apologized Wednesday for the fraud, calling it “an unwashable blemish on the whole scientific community as well as our country” and a “criminal act in academia.”

Chung Un-chan said he would seek punishment for Hwang and other researchers on his team.