By Hilary White

SEOUL, January 3, 2006 ( – Further developments in the Korean cloning scandal are likely to result in charges against Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, the researcher who claimed last year to have been the first to create patient-specific cloned embryonic stem cells. Seoul National University President Chung Un-chan said the university would be taking strong disciplinary measures against Hwang which may result in criminal charges.

The public prosecutors in Korea say that pending the outcome of the university’s investigation, Hwang could face criminal charges of fraud and embezzlement if it is shown that he received government funding on false pretenses. Public investigators are also seeking a travel ban for about 10 key figures who have collaborated with Hwang.

“We are closely examining the arguments raised by Hwang and also the arguments raised against him. We are waiting for the investigation panel of Seoul National University to conclude its probe on Hwang’s work,” said a prosecution official.

In November, the first of Hwang’s ethical problems came to light when Hwang resigned his position as head of Korea’s publicly funded cloning research foundation. His resignation was in response to allegations that he had obtained the ova for experiments unethically, having paid for some and obtained some through coercion of female members of his own research team. Hwang admitted that he had lied about his methods of obtaining ova.

The second scandal broke in early December when an American collaborator on Hwang’s research team requested that Science, the journal in which the findings were published, remove his name from the list of contributors. Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh wrote to Science, “Over the weekend, I received allegations from someone involved with the experiments that certain elements of the report may be fabricated,” Schatten wrote.”

On December 15, a member of Hwang’s Korean team announced in a television interview that the evidence appearing in Science had been fabricated. Now Seoul National University, where Hwang works, has appointed a nine-member commission to probe allegations by Roh Sung Il, one of 25 co-authors of the Science paper.

Roh, the head of the fertility clinic MizMedi Hospital, had at first defended Hwang’s methods of obtaining ova, but yesterday made a public retraction. Roh told the Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper that the team paid out roughly 1.5 million for ova and did obtain some from members of the research team.

Hwang began by denying Roh’s allegations that at least 9 of the 11 stem cell lines he claimed to have cultivated were faked. “It is certain [our team] produced tailor-made stem cells,” he said at a news conference.

Hwang has now made a counter-charge saying that some of the stem cell lines his team developed had been replaced by those made at Mizmedi, a claim that the hospital firmly denied.

Last year, the government spent 1.5 billion won ($1.48 million) to fund the stem cell research activities led by Hwang’s research team and an additional 5 billion gained for constructing and operating new lab facilities.

Read previous coverage:
  Cloning Whistleblower says Korean Cloning Breakthrough “Fabricated”