The Rise and Fall of the Cloning King

Woo Suk Hwang led the world in human cloning and became a national hero in South Korea. Now he's a scientific pariah. Inside his demise

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AHN YOUNG-JOON / AP

HUMILIATION: At a packed Dec. 16 press event, Hwang withdrew a key research paper

When Woo Suk Hwang burst into international prominence back in 2004, seemingly out of nowhere, his story seemed too good to be true. Here was a poor Korean farm boy who had overcome his humble origins to become a leading veterinary scientist, and then gone on to achieve a scientific landmark: the first therapeutic cloning of a human embryo. That transformed him into a biomedical superstar and made his native South Korea--a country better known for its serial television dramas than its scientific accomplishments--into the undisputed leader of a technology that could revolutionize modern medicine.

Over the next year or so, the tale only got better. Hwang, aided by a tireless, dedicated and underpaid laboratory staff that venerated him, went on to create multiple lines of thriving stem cells with unprecedented efficiency and ease. He topped his performance off last summer with yet another feat that had eluded some of the world's most talented scientists: the first cloning of a dog, called Snuppy. TIME named Snuppy "Invention of the Year" for 2005, but that was merely the icing on a cake of praise and recognition for Hwang. Scientists from around the world were clamoring to collaborate with him. Volunteers besieged his operation, offering themselves as research subjects. The South Korean government began pouring millions into his chronically underfunded lab. He was given round-the-clock security and free travel on Korean Air for life.

But in the months since Snuppy's debut in the journal Nature, Hwang's saga has been rewritten--as a Greek tragedy. One by one, he has faced an escalating series of charges: first, that some women had been paid for the eggs they provided for his research, and that eggs also came from his employees, both ethical violations in the rigorous world of high-level research. Then came the allegation that some of the photos of cells he published did not show what he claimed. And finally, as he was forced to admit two weeks ago, before submitting his resignation to Seoul National University (S.N.U.), that nine of the 11 stem-cell lines he described in Science weren't from clones at all. Last week, in a kind of scientific coup de grace, a university panel declared it could find no evidence to support the validity of the remaining two lines either.

Now the university is investigating the Snuppy report, along with Hwang's original 2004 stem-cell paper in Science. Hwang maintains that the current imbroglio involved no fraud on his part. He claims that a mix-up with the stem cells resulted in the wrong stem-cell lines--ones he did not create--being published in Science. Despite his failure so far to prove it, he still insists that he has developed the technology to create human stem cells that could be used to grow resistance-free replacements for damaged nerve, organ and muscle tissue. Despite black, billowing smoke, says Hwang, there is no fire.

But it's hard to find any scientist today who believes him. Even if Hwang's two remaining triumphs, Snuppy and the first human cloning, emerge untainted, urgent questions remain. How did his now invalidated stem-cell paper get into a major scientific journal? How did such serious flaws go undetected for months? And could he have knowingly taken such foolish risks?

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