Stem-Cell Researcher Defends Paper

South Korean stem-cell researchers are defending their work Friday against new allegations of fraud. The paper's lead author said tests would authenticate his results, but apologized for the controversy and said he would withdraw the article. Renee Montagne talks to Jon Herskovitz, a reporter with Reuters in Seoul.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

South Korean authors of one of the year's most celebrated scientific papers are defending their work against allegations of fraud, but they're also asking to withdraw the article they published in the journal Science. The paper showed that by using cloning techniques, scientists could make embryonic stem cell lines tailored to an individual patient. Earlier today, the lead author on the paper spoke at a press conference in Seoul. Jon Herskovitz is a Reuters correspondent in Seoul, and he's been following this story.

John, remind us quickly what the allegations are.

Mr. JON HERSKOVITZ (Reuters Correspondent): Well, Hwang Woo-suk suggested at the press conference today that the charges that he fabricated stem cell lines were false. He was accused of not producing stem cells, of having fundamentally flawed research. The paper that he published in Science in May of this year is going to be withdrawn. And so Hwang said that he will publish again with a different location, with the same type of standards, and show that he can produce ...(unintelligible) embryonic stem cells.

MONTAGNE: When it was first suggested that there might be problems with Hwang's work, there was an outpouring of popular support there in South Korea. Women were offering to donate eggs to help his research. So what is the reaction now to these latest allegations--which are quite a bit different--the fraud allegations?

Mr. HERSKOVITZ: It's really shocking confusion. The repercussions from this were immense today. There's an outpouring on the Internet of outrage at what had gone on. Shares in the Onsock(ph) exchange, and the Korean stock exchange, closed lower today. Biotech firms opened and fell almost--by their daily trading limit of 15 percent. His press conference pretty much stopped the nation. Everyone went to their TV sets and saw Dr. Hwang. They wanted to hear what he had to say. This man's a hero. He's like--it's very difficult to describe him, but he's like a rock star scientist.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, he's had other accomplishments that have led up to this. Earlier this year, he cloned--his team cloned a dog. Is that research being doubted?

Mr. HERSKOVITZ: Well, that research is going to be tested, along with the 2004 study he did, cloning embryonic stem cells for research purposes. So that study, the cloned dog, and also the tailor-made stem cells are all going to be reviewed by a panel at Seoul National University, where he works. The panel may include outside experts, as well. And today they also had a press conference to say that they're going to step up their probe into Hwang's work.

MONTAGNE: Just finally, even given the allegations, is there a chance that scientists, who are trying to re-create this or work on tailor-made stem cells, can learn something from this work?

Mr. HERSKOVITZ: The jury's still out with Dr. Hwang. He said that he's going to defrost some cells from his original study, prove that he can do it, write a new paper, publish it again. He's not backing away from his findings. And within the next 10 days to probably next month, we'll find the results of the probes and he could vindicate himself. But the jury is still out on whether that will happen or not.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. HERSKOVITZ: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Reporter Jon Herskovitz speaking from Seoul, South Korea.

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