April 20, 2024

Disgraced South Korean cloning expert making a comeback

With the help of loyal supporters and the government Hwang Woo-suk is forging a new career.

Left: Hwang with Snuppy, the first cloned dog (Ahn Young-joon/AP). Right: Hwang today (David Cyranoski)

This year marks the tenth anniversary of what may have been the most spectacular scientific fraud of the last 100 years: Hwang Woo-suk’s claim that he had cloned human embryos. It made him a scientific celebrity everywhere, but especially in South Korea. The fraudulent data and ethical lapses, however, soon emerged and his career seemed over, his name a byword for scientific infamy. In January 2006, the president of Seoul National University described the affair as “an unwashable blemish on the whole scientific community as well as our country”.

However, David Cyranoski, a journalist for Nature, reports that Hwang is making a comeback, as a specialist in cloning animals, especially dogs. Outside Seoul he runs the  Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, which was launched in 2006 with millions of dollars from supporters. He has 45 staff and delivers about 15 cloned puppies a month. Americans (mostly) are paying US$100,000 to have their pets cloned. His group is publishing in peer-reviewed journals and he has forged ties with the world’s largest sequencing facility, BGI in Shenzhen, China. Half of his budget comes from government grants.

Despite the scepticism of other scientists, in Korea and abroad, Hwang – who is now 61 – is clearly a comeback kid. He is even seeking recognition of his claim that he did clone a human embryo, even if the research was tarnished by misconduct.

Nature’s editorial team was shocked when many South Koreans interpreted Cyranoski’s profile as recognition of his achievements. A week later they published an editorial in which they insisted that “The evidence suggests that Hwang was not a great scientist… The potential of Hwang’s claimed work was over-hyped even before the work was exposed as fraudulent, especially considering that superior technologies — such as stem cells made from reprogrammed adult cells — were already in the offing.”

The best way, they suggest, for Hwang to be accepted as a scientist of integrity is to drop his legal action seeking recognition as the first to clone a human being. “People are asking, can we trust him? Part of the answer lies in how he resolves this issue. If he wants to start again, he should look there.”

Michael Cook
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Hwang Woo-suk
science fraud