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Outlasting Past Fraud

The Korean star scientist Woo Suk Hwang famously fell back to Earth when it was discovered that his therapeutic cloning research was riddled with ethical lapses and fabricated data. But he has been making a steady and dogged comeback of sorts, in part by cloning dogs, David Cyranoski reports in Nature.

Hwang made international headlines when he claimed, in a 2004 paper in Science, to have created an embryonic stem cell line from a cloned human embryo – an innovation others were pursuing without success that could be used to save failing organs and tissues or to create new cells for advanced research and drug screening.

However, after it was found that some of his data were fabricated and that he had obtained eggs from his graduate students, his papers were retracted and his name became synonymous with scientific disgrace. Not only did he commit the fraud, he lied about it.

An investigation found that the cell line he reported creating was not produced by cloning, but most likely was a case of parthenogenesis, and that the 11 stem-cell lines that he claimed were patient-specific clones were actually normal embryonic stem cell lines from a fertility hospital that had been relabeled and matched with fabricated images and graphs to support the lie.

Hwang had perpetrated one of the great scientific frauds of all time, and his stem cells were guaranteed a place in history right next to Piltdown Man.

"In January 2006, Un-chan Chung, then president of Seoul National University (SNU), where Hwang had done the work, called the episode 'an unwashable blemish on the whole scientific community as well as our country,'" Cyranoski writes.

"Shattered by the controversy, he was photographed in a hospital bed, unshaven and reportedly suffering from exhaustion."

And now?

Recently, Cyranoski found Hwang quite busy and reasonably well-rebounded, leading the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation and cloning hundreds of animals, including dogs for their owners in the US for a fee of $100,000 a pop.

Sooam could probably clone the dogs more cheaply and make more money, but he has much bigger ambitions.

"His goals include producing drugs, curing diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, providing transplantable organs, saving endangered species and relieving grief-stricken pet owners. He has a raft of publications in respectable journals, collaborations within and outside South Korea, and increasing institutional support from government agencies," Cyranoski writes.