South Koreans mouthed a collective "Say it ain't so" Friday amid mounting accusations that their most celebrated scientist, Hwang Woo Suk, had fabricated results of his world-famous research into cloned stem cells.
Hwan has admitted errors in a report published in May, but says he will prove his claim of producing 11 human stem cells from patients once he defrosts and analyzes samples in his laboratory. The analysis is to be completed in 10 days.
But this episode is already being felt as a national tragedy. Some graduate students had tears in their eyes Friday as they watched the 53-year-old veterinarian defend himself during a news conference at Seoul National University.
Even as they awaited the results, South Koreans were visibly dejected by the apparent downfall of a man they thought had embodied the entrepreneurship and creativity to which their country aspires.
"I feel like crying," said Park Mi Young, a 44-year-old office worker who was chatting with her equally glum friends at a subway entrance. "I can't bring myself to watch the television news."
Hwang not only enjoyed financial support from the government, he had a virtual cheering squad in 44 million South Koreans. On an Internet site called "I love Hwang Woo Suk," a fan wrote that not since the exploits of a 16th century military hero, Adm. Yi Sun Shin, had people been "so proud to be Korean."
Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, worked with Hwang and his researchers in South Korea over the summer.
"They're like the Beatles," he said. "If we would go to a restaurant, we'd get mobbed.... [Hwang] would joke to me, 'I'm like the Korean president or the Korean Elvis.' "
Doctors here said they feared that the allegations, if proved, could damage the reputations of their scientific and medical communities and set back keenly anticipated research on thus-far-incurable conditions.
"This hurts all of us," said Kim Tae Ho, a 31-year-old neurosurgeon at Seoul Paik Hospital. "It is very difficult for patients too because they had expectations that this research would lead to a cure for spinal and brain injuries."
Many researchers remain confident, however, that the approach Hwang used will ultimately produce useful therapies.
Attacks on Hwang's credibility continued to mount Friday. Hwang had barely finished speaking when one of his key collaborators on the paper published in May held a news conference in which he accused the veterinarian of lying.
"He is avoiding taking the responsibility he should," complained Dr. Roh Sang Il, chairman of Seoul-based MizMedi Hospital, which supplied human eggs for the research. He said the hospital would conduct its own examination of DNA to ascertain whether the stem-cell lines in fact came from the purported donors.
On Friday, Hwang requested that the paper on donor-specific stem cells published by the U.S. journal Science be retracted. Although maintaining that the integrity of the research was not compromised, he said the paper was flawed.
Scientists also are raising questions about Hwang's other experiments. An unnamed geneticist was quoted today in the English-language Korea Times asking for an investigation into Hwang's claim this summer to have cloned an Afghan dog. Without citing specific evidence, the geneticist said it was conceivable that the purported clone was in fact an identical twin created several years after the original from an egg that had been divided and frozen.
The dog, named Snuppy for "Seoul National University Puppy," was designated 2005 Invention of the Year by Time magazine.
Despite the doubts, some South Koreans were standing by Hwang.
"All the great scientific achievements were confronted by outsiders. Dolly the Sheep had problems. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was challenged," said Kang Sang Koo, a security guard at the hospital.
Hwang's personal history resonates with many South Koreans. He was born Dec. 15, 1952, during the Korean War in a desolate village in South Chungcheong province.
His mother, widowed when he was 5, supported the family by raising a single cow. Hwang later attributed his decision to become a veterinarian to his childhood efforts to care for the cow. According to a biography of the researcher published this year, one of his high school teachers slapped him because he refused to go to medical school.
As a veterinarian, Hwang has been often disparaged by South Korea's medical establishment. He nonetheless rose to command a large research operation that handled up to 400 pig and cow eggs each day. He boasted that he and his graduate students worked from 6 a.m. to midnight.
"No Saturday. No Sunday. No holidays. That's my motto," he told the Los Angeles Times last year.
After he his published a paper in 2004 describing the creation of the first cloned human embryo, he became not just a local hero but an international celebrity. Media-friendly and highly quotable, Hwang escorted foreign journalists around his university laboratory and a cloning farm 60 miles south of Seoul.
He regaled them with his theory that South Koreans developed their cloning prowess from the custom of using metal chopsticks, which require the kind of manual dexterity that comes in handy when manipulating genetic material.
Hwang's reputation began unraveling in November. First, Gerald Schatten, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, ended their collaboration because of ethical concerns about the procurement of eggs used in the initial research.
The South Korean television network MBC aired a documentary alleging that Hwang's team had obtained human eggs from his researchers in violation of international standards, which Hwang subsequently acknowledged.
South Koreans confronted the station with protests and angry e-mails while politicians and columnists demanded an investigation into the media company, which is partly government-funded. A follow-up documentary that accused Hwang of falsifying stem-cell research was delayed.
Despite the public pressure, the documentary finally aired Thursday night, setting the stage for Hwang to retract his published paper and apologize for the controversy.
"We felt that scientific truth should be placed ahead of nationalism," said Song Weon Geun, director of international relations for MBC.
"There will be some people who blame us for bringing down a national hero. But we think national credibility is improved because this was the work of Korean journalists and not from the outside," the executive said.
MBC did, however, apologize for what it said was unethical behavior by two of its producers. The network said the producers had threatened one of their sources, a young researcher for Hwang, with prosecution unless he cooperated, then filmed him with a hidden camera. One producer was suspended for a month and the other for two weeks, Song said.
On the campus of Seoul National University, where the unfolding cloning scandal was a key topic of conversation despite exams and the upcoming holidays, students said they were less angry than bewildered.
"Everybody was attacking MBC, but now people are just confused," said Sohn Hyung Jin, a 23-year-old accounting major. "It's hard to know who is telling the truth and who is lying."
Times staff writers Karen Kaplan in Los Angeles and Jinna Park in Seoul contributed to this report.