SEOUL -- An academic panel investigating embattled scientist Hwang Woo Suk concluded today that the claims he and his research team made in 2004 about creating the world's first stem cells from a cloned human embryo were fraudulent, discrediting what appeared to be one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the decade.
The claim that Hwang's team had cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells from it was published in a landmark paper in the journal Science, heralding the prospect of human cloning and the promise of using stem cell therapy to treat incurable diseases.
But the findings of a monthlong investigation into Hwang's results by an eight-member peer review panel at Seoul National University, where most of the research was conducted, indicated that DNA studies on the two preserved stem cells did not match those from the published study and were not cloned human embryonic stem cells. The review also involved interviews with Hwang's researchers.
The DNA testing of the purported embryonic stem cells indicated they resulted from a more easily attained mutation called parthenogenesis, the growth and development of an embryo from an unfertilized egg using electrical charges or other means. Hwang had repeatedly dismissed speculation that the 2004 stem cells were developed through parthenogenesis.
''Hwang basically lied to the Korean people and scientific world," said Chung Myung Hee, chairman of the peer review panel. ''Hwang and those who participated in the fabrication of the paper should be severely punished."
The panel did vindicate Hwang's team on at least one major contention, deeming as legitimate the claim last year that it had produced the first cloned dog. That decision was reached after DNA testing on the dog, an Afghan hound, and its cell donor.
Until the growing questions about the research, Hwang and his researchers had been credited with putting South Korea at the center of the emerging field of global stem cell science. Their reported breakthroughs had been seen as offering new hope for patients with conditions including Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and spinal cord injuries who stand to benefit from regenerative stem cell therapy. The research also held out promise for the cultivation of diseased tissue in labs for testing with new drugs.
The results from the Seoul university review follow disclosures Dec. 29 by the same panel that Hwang's team had fabricated a follow-up article, published in May 2005. In that article, the researchers claimed to have created 11 human embryonic stem cell colonies. Independent DNA tests, however, failed to find evidence that any of the stem cells had been made from clones.