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Hwang tried to clone elephant

india Updated: Jul 25, 2006 21:18 IST
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Disgraced South Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk said on Tuesday he spent part of private donations for his research in failed attempts to clone mammoths, extinct members of the elephant family.

Hwang, once celebrated as a national hero, was indicted in May on charges of fraud and embezzlement after prosecutors said he was the mastermind of a scheme to make it look like his team had produced stem cell lines through cloning human embryos.

At the third hearing in his trial in Seoul, Hwang said his team was given a 1 billion won ($1.05 million) grant from South Korea's powerful SK Group in 2005 and the money was supposed to be used for "peripheral activities related to the research".

When a prosecutor asked Hwang if the money landed in a personal account, Hwang did not deny the possibility but said: "I did have the money managed separately."

Hwang also said he used the names of seven junior members of his team to set up bank accounts. He controlled the money and used part of it to clone tigers, pay for a junior scientist's housing, overseas trips for team members and for a scientist's wedding.

"We secured mammoth tissues from glaciers and tried cloning three times, but failed," Hwang said.

He also admitted to often withdrawing tens of thousands of dollars in cash at different bank branches and carrying it in suitcases that contained his surgical gowns because "some of it had to go to uses of a highly classified nature," he said.

In February, South Korea's Board of Audit and Inspection said in a report more than 1.8 billion won from private contributions was deposited into Hwang's personal accounts and Hwang drew from the accounts for non-research purposes.

Hwang again apologised for the fraud in his team's work but said he was duped by junior researchers into believing the team had made breakthroughs.

"I apologise 100 times over for the trouble (I) caused. But I was cheated and I cheated, and I am as sad about it as anyone," he said.

At his last hearing on July 4, Hwang admitted to fabricating some data that went into a landmark paper on stem cell studies.

An investigation panel at Seoul National University, where Hwang once worked, said his team fabricated key data in two papers on embryonic stem cells that were once heralded as breakthroughs but have now been debunked.

Prosecutors have charged Hwang with misusing and embezzling 2.8 billion won in state funds and private donations as well as violating bioethics laws in procuring human eggs for his research.

Misuse of state funds carries a penalty of up to 10 years' jail, while violating the bioethics law can lead to three years' imprisonment, prosecutors have said.

Hwang's research had raised hopes because it seemed to fulfil a promise of embryonic stem cell studies where tissue could be grown to repair damaged bodies and cure illnesses such as diabetes and severe spinal cord injuries.

The two landmark papers from his team, which have since been retracted, were a 2004 report on producing the first cloned human embryos for research and a 2005 paper on producing patient-specific embryonic stem cells.

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