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October 27, 2009

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Korean stem-cell scientist Hwang found guilty of fraud

A SOUTH Korean court yesterday found disgraced stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk guilty of fraud and handed down a suspended sentence in a case that sent shockwaves throughout the global scientific community.

Once regarded as a national hero after he claimed to be the first to successfully clone human stem cells, Hwang had faced trial on charges of fraud, misusing state funds and violating bioethics laws.

"He was guilty of fabrication," the Seoul court said, adding that Hwang illegally diverted research money for his own use.

"But he has shown he has truly repented for his crime," the court said.

Hwang's supporters broke into applause when the court sentenced him to two years in jail with a three-year suspension.

Prosecutors were seeking a four-year prison term, saying Hwang had set back scientific research and deeply embarrassed the country, which had once hoped to capitalize on Hwang's discoveries and vault to world leadership in stem-cell studies.

Hwang, 56, and his lawyers did not speak to reporters.

The trial stretched more than three years and detailed the scientific work Hwang and his team had performed at Seoul National University.

Hwang's team had raised hopes of repairing damaged organs and treating diseases such as Alzheimer's by generating genetically specific tissue.

Stem cells are the body's master cells, giving rise to all the tissues, organs and blood. Embryonic stem cells are considered the most potent, having the potential to generate any type of tissue.

Investigators at Seoul National University said in late 2005 that Hwang's team fabricated vital data on human embryonic stem cells. Hwang resigned and the government revoked his stem-cell research license.

With major financial backing from his supporters, Hwang formed SooAm Biotech Research Foundation in 2006, which specializes in animal cloning and has produced cloned dogs.

Although scorned by many in the country, Hwang has fostered a small, devoted group of followers.

"Perhaps there is a chance that he might regain trust from people through sincere work. However, the truth has come out on his manipulated research and this has been made clear," said Park Jeong-woo, a professor of bioethics at Catholic University.


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