October 26, 2009 / 5:36 AM / 9 years ago

South Korea stem cell scientist guilty of fraud

SEOUL (Reuters) - A South Korean court Monday 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.

Stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk arrives for his trial at a court in Seoul June 19, 2007. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

Hwang, once a scientist with rock-star like status for bringing South Korea to the forefront of stem cell studies, had faced trial on charges of fraud, misusing state funds and violating bioethics laws.

“He was guilty of fabrication,” the Seoul court said in a verdict in the trial that stretched more than three years and included painstaking details about the scientific work Hwang and his team had performed at Seoul National University.

The court also said that Hwang illegally diverted a portion of the money he received for research for his personal use.

“But he has shown he has truly repented for his crime,” the court said in its verdict. Hwang’s supporters, who have packed the court for each hearing, broke into applause when the court sentenced Hwang to two years in jail, suspended for three years.

Prosecutors were seeking a four-year prison term, saying Hwang had set back scientific research and deeply embarrassed the country, which was at one point being groomed into a global center for stem cell studies.

Hwang and his lawyers did not speak to reporters.

Hwang’s team was thought to have made two major breakthroughs 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 said in late 2005 that Hwang’s team fabricated vital data in two papers on human embryonic stem cells. Hwang resigned his post and the government revoked his stem cell research license.

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.

Hwang is still regarded with scorn by many in the country but 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.

Editing by Jonathan Hopfner and Ron Popeski

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