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Korea cloning expert hits back

Seoul, Dec. 16 (Reuters): A South Korean scientist whose work is under intense scrutiny hit back at his accusers today, saying he had proof his team had made patient-tailored stem cells this year and he would produce the evidence soon.

Hwang Woo-suk said at Seoul National University five frozen stem cells were in the process of being thawed for analysis. He expected results in 10 days.

“Our six research members made 11 stem cells and all confirmed this,” said Hwang. Some cells had been contaminated by a fungus and he planned to ask prosecutors to investigate his suspicion they may have been tampered with or replaced.

“Who, with what intention, by what measure, who did such a thing'” he said. “I believe this must be unearthed.”

The case has wide ramifications for the already controversial field of stem-cell research and for the prestige of South Korea, where Hwang has become a folk hero.

His team published a study on tailored human stem cells in May in the journal Science. The discovery was vital as it could one day lead to treatment for spinal injuries, for example.

Hwang said he was retracting the paper from Science because of the row, even though he did not doubt his findings. He said a follow-up paper sent to another journal would restore faith.

Seoul National University said earlier it would step up an investigation into Hwang, the country’s top stem-cell scientist, after a close collaborator told media yesterday that Hwang himself had said some key parts of the paper were fabricated.

Hwang, who turned 53 yesterday, did not directly address the accusations but said his team had notes and pictures of the process to prove they had made the stem cells.

“I was so surprised and embarrassed to see the news reports,” said a combative Hwang. His team at Seoul National University published the first scientific paper on cloning a human embryo in 2004 and this year displayed the world’s first cloned dog.

“I’m so confused about the news. Most Korean people want to believe that Hwang’s assertion is true, but we really need to know the truth,” said Lee Un-kyoung, a 37-year-old teacher. Hwang had been under scrutiny since November 24 when he apologised for two junior women researchers donating their eggs for his work.

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