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School: Human stem cell work faked

Hwang, once a folk hero in South Korea, still has some supporters.



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South Korea
Stem-cell research

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- A panel investigating the work of disgraced South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk has found that he faked claims of cloning human embryonic stem cells, in what could be the biggest cover-up in modern scientific history.

Hwang resigned last December after colleagues accused him of deliberately fabricating data in his cloning research.

However the Seoul National University investigators said on Tuesday his claim to have created the world's first cloned dog in 2005, Snuppy, was genuine.

In a 2004 paper in the journal Science, Hwang's team said they had cloned the first human embryos for research, while in another article in May 2005 they claimed to have produced the first embryonic tailored stem cells.

Releasing its final results into the probe, the university panel said Hwang could not provide any proof that he ever created the cloned embryonic stem cells, and the data in the papers was deliberately fabricated.

"Hwang's team did not have the data for the stem cell lines in the 2004 paper, but fabricated it," Chung Myung-hee, the head of the panel, told reporters.

Using stem cells, doctors one day hope to tailor medicine to individuals, even growing replacement organs, in a bid to find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Folk hero to national disgrace

Hwang became a folk hero in South Korea when he claimed the first cloned human embryo and the first cloned dog.

But the 53-year-old Hwang has been under fire since November, when he admitted his team used eggs donated from junior scientists in his laboratory, a practice frowned upon because of coercion concerns.

He became a national disgrace when a colleague claimed in December that his research was false, and called him a fake.

Roh Sung-il, a hospital administrator and someone who had directly worked with Hwang, said the researcher had admitted fabricating the results of a landmark article published in May last year.

The university concluded in an interim report last month that Hwang had fabricated the 2005 Science article.

Criminal probe?

At the time Hwang said he had asked the journal Science to withdraw the article on the study.

The U.S. co-author of the article has already asked for his name to be removed from it because of the controversy.

The university panel said it could not find any of the 11 stem cell lines matched to patients, as Hwang had reported.

Responding to the criticism last year, Hwang admitted that six stem cell lines had been contaminated and destroyed, but said he was defrosting five other stem cell lines to validate his work.

Before the scandal broke out, Hwang was widely admired in South Korea, with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun opening a World Stem Cell Hub center, in a project seen as putting the country at the forefront of cloning research.

The government had already given him 25 billion won ($24.7 million), according to AP reports, but said they would decide whether to continue support after they receive the results from the university probe.

Prosecutors have said they may start a criminal probe into Hwang on suspicion of misusing state funds based on the findings in the panel's report, according to Reuters reports.

CNN's Sohn Jie-ae contributed to this report.

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