SEOUL, South Korea – Disgraced South Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk has set up a bio-technology firm specializing in cloning pet animals, a scientist close to Hwang said Wednesday.
Hwang, whose breakthrough human cloning research was later proved to be faked, recently established a new research firm in Seoul, said Park Se-pill, a Cheju National University professor and well-known stem cell scientist. Park said he spoke with Hwang a few days ago.
"He told me that he needs foreign capital to continue his research, but it's difficult to get it unless he sets up a new research institute and becomes its head," Park said.
Last month, the Korean Customs Service unveiled seven cloned Labrador retrievers being trained near Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, to sniff out drugs and explosives.
The cloning work was conducted by a team of Seoul National University scientists who in 2005 successfully created the world's first known dog clone, an Afghan hound named "Snuppy."
The team is led by Professor Lee Byeong-chun, who was a key aide to Hwang.
South Korea's Yonhap News Agency and local newspapers reported on their Web sites Wednesday that Hwang had set up a pet-cloning firm. Hwang's lawyer, Lee Geon-haeng, said he could not confirm the reports.
However, Park — a close colleague of Hwang's who says he frequently speaks to the now-reclusive scientist — said Hwang told him during an earlier conversation that his company would specialize in cloning pet animals.
But he said his friend also hopes to return to validate his earlier, discredit breakthroughs: cloning human embryos and extracting stem cells from them.
"What he wants to do with foreign capital includes pet cloning, but his final goal is only one," Park said, referring to Hwang's stem-cell ambitions.
Park could not offer details, including the size of Hwang's firm.
Hwang claimed in 2004 that his team had produced a human embryo through cloning and that they had recovered stem cells from it. The following year, his team announced they succeeded in producing stem cells tailored to specific patients.
But those achievements were discovered in late 2005 to have been faked, forcing Hwang's downfall from being a national hero to an international disgrace for South Korea.
He was fired from the prestigious Seoul National University, lost his license to research into human cloning and was put on trial for allegedly accepting funds under false pretenses, embezzlement and illegally purchasing human eggs for research.
Since the scandal, Hwang — formerly a media darling — has rarely made public comment.
Hwang has asked for government permission to resume research into human cloning, but the government put off a decision on the request last month, citing that fact that his trial is still under way. The Health Ministry said it would wait until August to decide whether to approve Hwang's request.