S.Korea seeks 4-year prison term for stem cell fraud

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean prosecutors told a Seoul court on Monday they wanted a four-year prison term for disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk, whose research team has been linked to major fraud in its once-celebrated stem cell studies.

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Hwang, once a scientist with rock-star like status in South Korea for his research that brought the country to the forefront of stem cell studies, is facing trial on charges of fraud, misusing 2.8 billion won ($2.25 million) in state funds and violating bioethics laws.

Prosecutors said Hwang brought shame to the country and harm to scientific research in South Korea.

“The disappointment felt by the (Korean) people is enormous,” one of the team of prosecutors told the court.

Hwang, who has apologized for fraud in his team’s work, has denied any wrongdoing and said he was duped by junior researchers into believing the landmark results

Lee Bong-gu, a lawyer for Hwang, said: “These people, including the prosecutors are trying to tear apart Hwang’s precious scientific evidence.”

Hwang’s trial at a nondescript Seoul court has been going on for about three years, and could stretch into a fourth, legal experts said. It has been bogged down in the technical testimony from scores of scientists about the research done by his team.

His supporters have staged emotional rallies over the years and filled the court for each of what are typically monthly hearings, saying Hwang is a scientific savior who should be given a second chance.

Hwang’s team was thought to have made two major breakthroughs in the field by cloning stem cells and tailoring them to a specific patient, which raised hopes of generating genetically specific tissue to repair damaged organs or treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells, giving rise to all the tissues, organs and blood. Embryonic stem cells are considered the most powerful kinds of stem cells, as they have the potential to give rise to any type of tissue.

An investigation team at Seoul National University, where Hwang once worked, said in late 2005 that Hwang’s team deliberately fabricated vital data in the two papers on human embryonic stem cells.

It did verify, however, that Hwang’s team produced the world’s first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy.

“Hwang’s fall discouraged the government from supporting stem cell studies. It also meant that researchers in the field were the objects of scorn,” said Oh Il-hwan, a Catholic University Medical school professor specializing in bioethics.

With major financial backing from his supporters, Hwang went on to form Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in 2006, which specializes in animal cloning and has produced cloned dogs.

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani