SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea's top university on Wednesday apologized for the scandal over Hwang Woo-suk's faked stem cell research, calling it a blemish on the country that embraced the scientist as a national hero.
The government said it would withdraw Hwang's "top scientist" title — an honor created especially for him in the wake of purported breakthroughs that raised hopes for using stem cells to develop new treatments of diseases from Alzheimer's to diabetes.
Seoul National University's apology came a day after its investigative panel confirmed that Hwang faked all of his human stem cell research, including his landmark 2004 claim in the journal Science that he cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells from it.
"I, as the president of the university, sincerely apologize to the public," Chung Un-chan, the head of the state-run institution, told a nationally televised news conference.
He called Hwang's fraud a "blemish on the whole scientific community as well as our country" and a "criminal act in academia."
Chung said he would seek punishment for Hwang, professor of veterinary medicine at the university, and other researchers on his team.
"I will deal with the situation strictly" based on the findings of the investigation, he said.
Hwang has made no public appearances since last month and his whereabouts are unknown. The Korea Press Foundation said he plans to hold a news conference Thursday. The university says he has not yet formally offered to step down.
Also Wednesday, the National Police Agency said it will no longer guard Hwang's residence around the clock as it had since May 2005. Police had also provided escorts for Hwang until November, when he requested that the service be stopped.
The university investigating panel said in its final report Tuesday that Hwang and his research team "did not have any proof to show that cloned embryonic stem cells were ever created."
The panel cast doubt on Hwang's claim to have cloned a human embryo as reported in the 2004 paper, saying there was a high possibility it could have merely been a mutated egg, which could appear to have similar qualities of an embryo.
Last month, a devastating report by the university concluded that Hwang fabricated data for another article published in Science last year in which he claimed to have produced 11 stem cell lines genetically tailored to patients.
Science said Tuesday it will formally retract Hwang's two studies and is considering how to improve safeguards against scientific fraud.
The university on Tuesday upheld Hwang's claim last year to have cloned the world's first dog. That achievement, was not regarded as important as the cloning of human embryos, however, because various animals had already been cloned.
Hwang, once lionized for his purported research breakthroughs in stem cell research, still has supporters in South Korea. Several hundred held a candlelight vigil in Seoul on Wednesday evening, demanding he be given a chance to prove himself.
"I do not believe professor Hwang Woo-suk could have deceived the whole world," said Bae Hee-joo, a 56-year-old Seoul housewife. "I still believe he has the technology."
Supporters tied yellow ribbons to a tree and also placed a large banner with a picture of Hwang and the words "You are the Pride of Korea" written in Korean on another one.
The government also said it would launch an audit of national funds provided for Hwang's research. Last year, he was granted as much as $3 million in annual funding for five years.
Media reports have said prosecutors are likely to investigate possible misappropriation of government money used in his research.