- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

SEOUL — South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-sok, hailed as a national hero after a pair of cloning breakthroughs, resigned yesterday from his position as head of an international stem-cell body and apologized for covering up an ethics violation.

“As of today, I am resigning from the chairmanship of the World Stem Cell Hub and all other official responsibilities,” said Dr. Hwang, 52, who in August announced the first cloning of a dog. “This is my way of seeking repentance.”

The state-run organization was established in Seoul last month to serve as a center for providing medical centers around the world with embryonic stem cells.

Dr. Hwang said he would continue research activities.

A professor at South Korea’s top university, Seoul National, Dr. Hwang, a veterinarian by training, extracted stem cells from cloned human embryos in February 2004.



His achievement was lauded internationally, as it raised the prospect that tissues could be taken from patients, then grown to replace diseased or injured tissues. Stem cells are “blank slate” cells that can be “programmed” for a variety of functions.

In August, Dr. Hwang and his team again made headlines when he revealed the world’s first cloned dog. He has since achieved iconic status in South Korea.

The ethical debate centered on charges published in the British journal Nature in May 2004 that two female researchers, junior members of Dr. Hwang’s team, had donated their own eggs for research.

This contravenes the Helsinki Declaration, an international agreement covering the ethics of medical research, which says junior researchers should not use their own bodies or body parts in research. The ruling is based on the fear that subordinates might come under pressure to do so.

Dr. Hwang denied the Nature report at the time and denounced the Korea Bioethics Association when it requested clarification.

The issue was reignited last week when Gerald Schatten, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a partner in Dr. Hwang’s research, said he was severing collaborative ties because he suspected that the charges of unethical egg procurement were true. One of Dr. Hwang’s two junior researchers who donated eggs now works with Mr. Schatten.

“I withheld the truth after the journal requested my confirmation on this matter,” Dr. Hwang said at a press conference yesterday.

He added that if he had been truthful at the time, the furor might not have arisen.

Last night, one of Dr. Hwang’s closest associates told journalists that the professor had felt constrained by a sense of loyalty to the researchers.

Yoon Tae-il, an adviser to Dr. Hwang’s team, said that at the time of the Nature report, a journalist from the magazine had called for confirmation or denial.

“Dr. Hwang called the two researchers into his office,” Dr. Yoon said. “When they told him they had donated their eggs, he went through an agonizing inner conflict. He did not disclose it, as the two researchers demanded their right to privacy.”

In the past 10 days, Dr. Hwang has met with the researchers three times, Dr. Yoon said, and they finally agreed to allow him to disclose the facts.

Cloning of human tissues is a sensitive subject. Scientists in the United States face a more restrictive legal and ethical environment than their South Korean colleagues do.

This is not the first time South Korean scientists have ignored ethical considerations to press forward on research.

Last year, scientists at state-run laboratories were found to have engaged in apparently unsanctioned nuclear experiments in 1982 and 2000 without reporting them to international bodies — a contravention of global treaty obligations.

The country faced International Atomic Energy Agency probes, but escaped without penalties. None of the scientists involved was punished.

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