South Korean stem cell scientist Woo Suk Hwang has been formally prosecuted on charges of fraud and embezzlement - if convicted he could spend up to 10 years in prison. He was charged with accepting two billion won (about $2.1 million) in private donations based on his research into human embryonic stem cells (ES cells), which later turned out to be falsified, as well as embezzling at least 800 million won from government grants of an estimated 37 billion won - he used some of the money to make donations to politicians, the prosecutors found. In their findings, the prosecutors blame the fraud on the fabrication of results by a junior scientist desperate to please, and Hwang, who pushed for more results to speed up the publication of his papers, although they say he was 'blind' to the actual fabrication of evidence. Five of Hwang's colleagues have also been charged in relation to the scandal.
In 2004, Hwang's team announced the creation of the world's first cloned human ES cell-line and, in 2005, reported, in the journal Science, the derivation of a further 11 cell-lines from 31 cloned embryos, using just 185 eggs. Hwang became internationally acclaimed and on the back of his success the World Stem Cell Hub was set up by an international consortium - headed by Hwang - on 19 October last year. At the time, the consortium announced that it had set up an international bank of human ES cell lines at Seoul National University (SNU), and that it would also have satellite laboratories in England, and San Francisco in the US.
In November last year, allegations were made suggesting that Hwang had used eggs donated by a junior researcher to create his 11 ES cell lines. On 12 November, Gerald Schatten, from Pittsburgh University in the US, ended his 20 month collaboration with Hwang because of the allegations. Following these events, other laboratories that were to form part of the World Stem Cell Hub also said they would pull out of the consortium. Hwang later quit his public positions - including that as chair of the hub - after admitting that some eggs used in the work were provided by junior researchers and paid donors.
Subsequently, an investigation found that the 11 ES cell lines reported in Science had been 'faked'. These revelations lead to the retraction of the publication in January 2006, and questions about other research. Later in January, the panel investigating Hwang's work reported that research showing that Hwang's team had created the world's first ES cell line from a cloned human embryo was also faked - an investigation lead by SNU found that no such cell line exists. The finding completed Hwang's downfall - he was suspended from his SNU post in February and then formally dismissed in March, when the prosecutors began their investigation. Hwang said he was going to appeal his dismissal.
In March this year, the World Stem Cell Hub became the latest victim of the ongoing saga, when it was formally shut down. SNU transformed it into a research centre focusing on research into adult stem cells and other developing medical technologies for clinical use, such as gene therapy. This week, the South Korean government has reaffirmed its support for ES cell research. Kim Woo-sik, the Minister for Science and Technology, said that details would be announced towards the end of the month. He added that ES cell research should not suffer as a result of Hwang's prosecution, adding that nine other stem cell scientists who worked with Hwang had been found to be not guilty, so could continue to participate in government-funded research.