Australia mulls patent on South Korea stem cell data

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s patent office said on Wednesday it had found no reason to reject a patent for disputed technology on cloning human embryos based on falsified research by disgraced South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk.

South Korean protesters wearing national flags take part in a rally supporting the stem-cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk in Seoul February 18, 2006. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Hwang made international headlines in 2004 when he was found to have faked key parts of a report that his team had used somatic cell nuclear transfer to clone human embryos.

Australia’s intellectual property office (IP Australia) said it was considering the patent request by Seoul National University based on Hwang’s falsified research. Hwang is listed as one of 18 inventors in the patent application.

IP Australia said the decision to grant a patent was based on whether the technology was new or involved an inventive step, not whether an invention performed as claims.

“During examination, IP Australia considered that information relating to the falsification of research results involving Dr Hwang were related to issues of utility (usefulness) and not matter that could be objected to in examination,” David Johnson, Acting Commissioner of Patents, said in a statement.

“There is no statutory basis to refuse to grant a patent on the basis that the scientific data in a patent application is a misrepresentation or fraudulently obtained. However, it is a ground for revocation by the court,” he said.

The patent application passed the examination stage on June 12 and the deadline for any objections expired on September 12. No objections were filed during the opposition period.

However, IP Australia said it had not yet granted a patent.

“While the application has met the criteria relevant to examination, it is important to note that the application has not yet been granted. IP Australia is continuing to investigate the matter,” Johnson said.

Hwang’s reported breakthrough in stem cell research raised hopes because it seemed to hasten the day when genetically specific tissue could be grown from embryonic stem cells to repair damaged organs or treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Hwang, hailed as a national hero for bringing South Korea to the forefront of stem cell studies, was indicted in May 2006 with prosecutors saying he was the mastermind behind the fraud.

At his trial, Hwang apologized for the fraud but said he was duped by junior researchers into believing his team had produced human embryonic stem cell lines through cloning.

Hwang’s team is credited with producing the world’s first cloned dog -- an Afghan hound named Snuppy. Dogs are considered difficult to clone because of their reproductive system.

Editing by Bill Tarrant