SEOUL, South Korea – Disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk denied embezzling research funds and testified Tuesday that part of the money went toward failed attempts to clone mammoths, extinct relatives of today's elephants.
Hwang is on trial on charges of misappropriating funds, embezzlement and illegally purchasing human eggs for stem cell research. Five of his colleagues face the same charges. Prosecutors completed their first round of questioning on Tuesday.
"Not a single penny was spent for personal use," said Hwang, whose purported breakthroughs in creating stem cells from cloned human embryos unraveled in scandal last year.
The defendants' lawyers will begin their cross-examination at the next trial hearing in September.
Hwang also said he did not deceive donors who supported his stem cell research, insisting he did not realize his internationally heralded innovations were faked.
"I am also a victim who was deceived. I am the biggest victim," he said.
Hwang was indicted in May for allegedly accepting $2.1 million in private donations based on the outcome of the falsified research and embezzling about $850,000 in private and government research funds. If convicted, he faces at least three years in prison.
Hwang said some of the money was used to clone mammoths, using tissues of the extinct animal obtained from glaciers.
"We tried three times, but failed all those times," he said, adding his team had also tried to clone tigers.
Hwang admitted to using some of the funds not specifically as intended but said "all the money was used for the purpose of research."
Some went toward housing for his researchers, gifts and tours for visiting foreign scholars and meals for government officials, he said.
He also claimed his team had the technology to produce cloned stem cell lines, saying researchers have been creating non-human stem cells since last year.
"We made stem cells, although they are not human," Hwang said.
Hwang gained international fame for his research on stem cells and cloning after publishing landmark academic articles in 2004 and 2005. But the work was discredited last year amid revelations some data had been forged.
Once praised as a national hero, Hwang was fired from his job at the country's top school, Seoul National University, and the government is stripping him of his state honors.
His work had raised global hopes of new cures for untreatable diseases, using stem cells to grow replacement tissues for therapy that would not be rejected by patients.
At a hearing earlier this month, Hwang admitted to ordering subordinates to falsify stem cell data in a key 2005 paper, saying he told researchers to make it look like they were basing their results on 11 cloned embryonic stem cell lines, rather than the two lines he believed they had.
Even those two stem cell lines were later revealed to be fakes.
Still, Hwang said his fellow researchers shared the blame for the deception.
Hwang's lawyer said last month that he plans to open a new lab and resume research. His prospects were unclear, however, because he is no longer authorized to conduct such research in South Korea.