Prosecutors indicted the disgraced cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk on charges of fraud, embezzlement and violation of Korean bioethics laws yesterday. Five other people related to the matter, including the former MizMedi Hospital researcher Kim Sun-jong and a Seoul National University veterinary professor, Lee Byung-cheon, were also indicted.
Reporting the results of its five-month investigation, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office said that Dr. Hwang embezzled research funds and fabricated data for his team’s 2004 article on embryonic stem cell cloning, which was published and later retracted by the journal Science. But they did not charge him with any crimes directly related to that or a 2005 paper, saying that scientific fraud was probably a matter best left to the scientific community.
The prosecution said, however, that data fabrications in a second article for Science, on cloned stem cells customized for individual patients, were the work of Kim Sun-jong alone. The journal also retracted that article.
“The customized stem cells that were used to write an article for Science in 2005 never existed in the first place,” said a prosecutor, Lee In-gyu.
But the prosecutors said they did not wish to become bogged down in attempts to determine whether the data for the first paper were completely fraudulent or whether there had been at least a partial breakthrough in cloning technology. The first cloned stem cell NT1, announced in Dr. Hwang’s 2004 Science paper, was created by Park Eul-soon at Seoul National laboratories, prosecutors said, after she laboriously transplanted somatic cell nuclei into hundreds of human egg cells from which the nuclei had been removed. But they said the project was documented in such a sloppy manner that sufficient supporting data for an academic paper did not exist. Dr. Hwang then allegedly ordered his staff to invent those data – photographs, DNA test results and other information needed to support the 2004 paper. In short, anyone trying to determine whether the whole affair produced any scientific breakthroughs would be able to find no evidence of them. The clone produced by Ms. Park, if it indeed existed, was never documented sufficiently to pass scrutiny by scientific peers.
Prosecutors said Mr. Kim mixed egg stem cells that were fertilized in vitro in the Mizmedi Hospital labs with cells at the Seoul National University research laboratories. They contended that Mr. Kim had been pressured by Dr. Hwang to create customized stem cells and was also eager for the glory that would come from having participated in such a breakthrough. He was indicted for obstructing research work at Seoul National University, a government-run institution. He was also indicted for destroying evidence, such as computer files, and telling MizMedi researchers to hide the fact that he was removing stem cells from laboratories there.
After a long period of indecision, prosecutors said, they decided not to indict Dr. Hwang for fabricating research data. “There have been no precedents anywhere in the world in which someone was criminally punished for fabricating data, and we believe that is something that should be handled by the academic community,” said Mr. Lee, the prosecutor.
Dr. Hwang, however, was accused of embezzling 2.8 billion won ($3 million) of research grants from public and private sources.
Prosecutors said that he used the money to make political donations, to buy gifts for large donors and to buy his wife a car. Prosecutors said he used 63 different bank accounts, in the names of relatives or junior researchers, and personally traveled between banks, withdrawing and depositing cash to “launder” the money received from donors.
Earlier in the investigation, Korea’s national auditors had thrown up their hands after attempts to unravel Dr. Hwang’s finances had proved fruitless, at least without subpoena powers. Dr. Hwang also worked with the veterinary professor Lee Byung-cheon, prosecutors said, to forge tax receipts in an attempt to make it appear he had bought farm animals for use in his work, according to the indictment.
He was also charged with violating a new Korean bioethics law that banned the purchase of human eggs for research. Prosecutors said he spent 38 million won last year, the first year in which the law was in effect, to buy eggs from Hanna Women’s Clinic. Donors there were promised discounted fees for fertility treatments in return for the eggs. But prosecutors said they found no evidence to support the claims of one female researcher on his staff that she and one other researcher had been pressured to donate eggs for the project. The charges of fraud were related to applications for government research grants backed by the fraudulent data he and his team allegedly prepared.
Lee Byung-cheon and Kang Sung-keun, both professors at Seoul National University, were indicted for fraud – Dr. Lee for helping to prepare false tax receipts, and Dr. Kang for preparing false receipts for salary payments to junior researchers and embezzling the money. Chang Sang-sik, the head of Hanna Women’s Clinic, was charged with violations of the bioethics law in connection with egg procurement.
Yoon Hyun-soo, a professor of medicine at Hanyang University, was indicted for embezzling research funds at MizMedi.
Roh Sung-il, the director of MizMedi, was not indicted; prosecutors said he paid for no egg donations after a law banning the practice went into effect. Neither was Park Ky-young, a former Blue House science aide who received funding from Dr. Hwang for her own research under circumstances that appeared suspicious when first discovered.
Dr. Hwang’s supporters were undeterred; the “I Love Hwang Woo-suk” Web site announced a rally at the prosecution office tonight. They repeated that Dr. Hwang was being cheated out of cloning patents.
by Wohn Dong-hee for JoongAng Daily