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


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

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    On Dec. 7 a group of young professors at S.N.U. upped the ante by demanding an investigation--a demand the university's president initially refused. But a week later Hwang, who had been hospitalized on and off for "stress and exhaustion," appeared publicly to announce that he was retracting the suspect Science paper. MBC's request for samples had led him to do a retest, and to his surprise, he said, they were invalid. His theory: someone had switched the samples when they were at MizMedi to be photographed (his lab didn't have the right microphotography equipment) and stored. Later he accused Sun Jong Kim, one of the scientists cornered in Pittsburgh by MBC, of making the switch.

    In turn, Kim has accused Hwang of asking him to forge the suspect photographs. Kim also says Hwang paid him a total of $30,000 (that Kim has returned to the university), which Hwang says was simply to cover Kim's living expenses in Pittsburgh. Korean press reports suggest that total payments to Kim and a colleague, Park Jong Hyuk, may amount to more than $50,000. These allegations are being investigated by Korean prosecutors.

    MizMedi's Roh, meanwhile, says that after a visit to Hwang at the hospital, he was convinced that "there are no embryonic stem cells." In response to Hwang's retraction, the university finally launched its investigation and announced last week that there is no evidence that any of the stem-cell lines Hwang claimed he had derived from adult cells ever existed (the full report is expected in mid-January). Until any further rulings come down--from the university's continuing inquiry or from the prosecutors, who are also looking into Hwang's allegations of cell switching at MizMedi--that's pretty much all we know about what happened.

    But why it happened is still a mystery. By all accounts, the tales of Hwang's dedication and personal discipline are all true. Hwang was one of the first to arrive in the lab, at 5 a.m., and rarely left before midnight. He rejected the role of aloof, inaccessible scientist to become a father-like figure for his young charges. And he introduced some genuine innovations into the science of cloning--gently squeezing the nucleus out of a donor egg rather than sucking it out violently and inserting the entire adult cell, not just its nucleus, into the hollowed-out recipient egg. Hwang insisted he had no interest in profiting from his discoveries; indeed, he turned over his patent rights to the university and the government.

    That being the case, it seems unlikely that Hwang set out to perpetrate fraud. But it wouldn't be surprising if he, or someone in his lab, believed strongly enough in the work to be willing to cut corners. If that's true, the precipitating event could have come last January, when some of his stem-cell samples became contaminated, possibly by a fungus circulating in poorly shielded air vents.

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