SEOUL, South Korea – An already disgraced scientist lied about all of the stem cell lines he claimed were matched to different patients through cloning, investigating researchers said in a new jolt to the shattered reputation of Hwang Woo-suk.
Thursday's announcement all but ends the fraud investigation into one of three major cloning breakthroughs claimed by the one-time scientific superstar and national hero. Probes of Hwang's two other groundbreaking experiments are still under way at Seoul National University where he worked before resigning in disgrace last week.
The latest news was one more disappointment to the scientific world, which had viewed Hwang's achievements as holding great promise for treating people with a variety of ailments, from spinal cord injuries to Parkinson's disease.
One researcher bemoaned the most recent development.
"The bottom line is that it's a major disaster to our whole field because the expectations were so high and now we are back to square one," said stem cell scientist Joseph Itskovitz, director of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel.
In the experiment deemed fraudulent, Hwang had claimed in a paper published in May in the journal Science that he had created 11 colonies of human embryonic stem cells genetically matched to specific patients.
An investigative panel at the university reported last week that Hwang had faked the research on nine of the stem cell lines. On Thursday, it confirmed he also fabricated his research for the two remaining cell lines as well.
"The panel couldn't find stem cells that match patients' DNA regarding the 2005 paper and it believes that Hwang's team doesn't have scientific data to prove that (such stem cells) were made," said Roe Jung-hye, the university's dean of research affairs.
The university said that by next month it expected to wrap up all work on that case and have findings on two others: Hwang's first blockbuster claim in 2004 in the journal Science that he created the world's first cloned human embryo and extracted stem cells from it; and his research published in Nature last August claiming to have produced the first cloned dog.
Prosecutors said last week they are waiting for the university investigation into all Hwang's research before launching their own probe. The scientific journals also await those findings.
"We were already worried about the 2004 paper and this doesn't make us any less worried," said Katrina Kelner, an editor at Science, who said the 2005 paper would be retracted.
Since soaring to international renown last year, the 53-year-old Hwang, had become the focal point of pride in South Korea, a nation obsessed with education and achievement. That has quickly turned to disbelief and anger as escalating revelations of fraud have been the final blow to many who initially supported him even as the first doubts emerged.
"The problem grew bigger and bigger as Hwang was trying to hide something about his research," said Jeon Ji-eun, a 33-year-old part-time worker in the port city of Incheon, near Seoul. "Hwang would not have faced a difficult situation like this if he had taken ethical issues into consideration."
Hwang first came under suspicion in November when he admitted, after more than a year of denial, that he had used eggs donated by lab workers, in violation of ethics guidelines. He also acknowledged that some of the eggs he used were bought, after first saying all the eggs were donated.
His fraudulent research first came to light when a former colleague alleged fakery involving some of the patient-specific stem cell lines.
On Thursday, Hwang's whereabouts were unknown and he could not be reached for comment. A mobile phone number he gave to journalists has been changed.
Despite Hwang's fall from grace, some were not ready to give up the dreams that his claims inspired.
"Our confidence in Hwang remains unchanged," said Jung Jin-owan, 40, secretary general of the Korea Spinal Cord Injury Association. Since Hwang himself has not admitted all the cell lines were faked, "we would like to believe that he created patient-specific stem cells," said Jung, paralyzed from the waist down since a 1987 traffic accident.
Hwang filed a complaint with prosecutors last Friday that some of the stem cell lines his team created were replaced by those made at Seoul's Mizmedi Hospital, which had collaborated with his research team.
Roe said that while the university's investigation found that some of Hwang's purported stem cell lines originated from Mizmedi, probing any possible switch is beyond the scope of the panel.