Disgraced South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk did create the world's first cloned dog, but he faked all his landmark claims to have cloned human embryonic stem cells in a brazen scam and deserves punishment, his university said yesterday.
The latest revelations doomed the South Korean veterinarian's reputation as a pioneer in the human cloning field, already tainted by the finding that his claim last year to have efficiently developed 11 patient-specific stem cell lines was false.
Hwang and his researcher team "did not have any proof to show that cloned embryonic stem cells were ever created," an investigating panel at Seoul National University said in a report yesterday, disputing claims in Hwang's 2004 paper in the journal Science purporting that he cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells from it.
However, the panel upheld Hwang's claims last year to have created the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy.
"The 2004 paper was written on fabricated data to show that the stem cells match the DNA of the provider although they didn't," the report said.
The university also cast doubt on Hwang's claim to have cloned a human embryo as reported in the 2004 paper, saying there is a high possibility it could have merely been a mutated egg, which could appear to have similar qualities of an embryo.
Last month, a devastating report by the university concluded that Hwang fabricated another article published in Science last year.
The university's nine-member investigative panel said that it could not find any of the 11 stem cell lines that were matched to the patients, as Hwang had claimed in that research.
Though confidence in Hwang -- once dubbed "The Pride of Korea" for his work -- has eroded steadily both internationally and in South Korea in recent months, the shock of the university's final report remained jarring for scientists in his field.
Alan Trounson, a top stem cell researcher and expert in embryonic stem cells at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said the confirmation by the university of Hwang's fabrications will have a negative impact on research and were "regrettable." He added, however, that the field remains promising and holds out hope for achieving breakthroughs.
Hwang had also come under fire for using eggs in his studies donated by junior researchers on his team.
He conceded in November that two subordinate scientists had donated eggs without his knowledge and that other women were paid to take fertility drugs to produce eggs for research. Both practices are viewed as coercive and unethical.
The panel said yesterday that one of the two researchers who donated eggs said that Hwang accompanied her to a clinic for the procedure.
Hwang also received letters from female scientists on his team pledging to donate eggs, the panel said.
While the university could not determine the exact number of eggs Hwang used for his research, it said his lab used more than 185 as reported in last year's article.
Hwang has not made any public appearances since last month when he said he would resign his faculty position, and his whereabouts are unknown. Hwang said earlier that -- despite any scandal over faked results -- he has the technology to clone stem cells.
The university condemned his fabrications.
"This conduct cannot but be seen as an act that fools the whole scientific community and the public," yesterday's report said. "Just based on the facts of the fabrications that have been disclosed, the penalty has to be severe."