SEOUL (Reuters) - A team led by a once heralded and now disgraced South Korean scientist faked two landmark papers on embryonic stem cells but did produce the world's first cloned dog, an investigation panel said on Tuesday.
The panel at Seoul National University told reporters data was deliberately fabricated in papers produced by the team led by scientist Hwang Woo-suk. It described the case as scandalous.
Medical researchers say the episode -- which has shocked and shamed many South Koreans who had dubbed Hwang a hero -- is one of the biggest cases of scientific fraud in recent history.
The two papers finally debunked on Tuesday were a 2004 report on producing the first cloned human embryos for research and a 2005 paper on producing the first embryonic tailored stem cells. Both papers were published in the U.S. periodical Science.
"Hwang's team did not have the data for the stem cell lines in the 2004 paper, but fabricated it," Chung Myung-hee, the head of the panel, told reporters.
Chung reiterated a finding in an interim report in late December that there was no data to prove that Hwang's team had produced tailored stem cells, as claimed in the May 2005 paper.
That paper caused a sensation because the findings raised hopes that embryonic stem cells could one day be used to create genetically-specific tissue to treat ailments such as severe spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's disease.
"We concluded that Professor Hwang's team did not have patient-specific stem cell lines and did not have any scientific basis that the team made them," the panel said.
The panel said DNA analysis proved a 2005 claim made by the team of producing the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy, which is short for Seoul National University puppy.
In a finding likely to be seized on by Hwang supporters, the panel said the team had created a few human blastocysts, or early embryos, and that implied that "the team was in possession of a technique of creating cloned human blastocyst".
"This reminds us that science is a human endeavour," said David Winickoff, a bioethics assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "And as such, it is subject to ethical lapses and dishonesty."
Prosecutors have said they may start a criminal probe into Hwang on suspicion of misusing state funds, based on the findings in the panel's report. They made no move on Tuesday.
The report did not say who might have been responsible for the fabrication. Chung said that would be left to investigative authorities, referring to prosecutors.
Park Ky-young, science adviser to President Roh Moo-hyun, expressed her intention to resign after the report was released, a presidential spokesman said. Park was also a co-author of the 2004 paper from Hwang's team.
The spokesman described the panel's findings as regrettable. Roh opened a global stem-cell centre associated with Hwang in Seoul last October.
The journal Science has said it will retract the May 2005 paper. It said it had asked the panel for its final report and was asking the papers' authors to answer technical questions.
The panel said Hwang's team had procured more human egg cells than they had reported.
It said junior researchers in Hwang's laboratory had donated eggs, and in one instance of egg procurement, "Professor Hwang accompanied the student to the hospital himself".
Donations of this sort by research assistants are seen as an ethical violation because of the possibility of coercion.
Hwang has been in seclusion since he resigned from Seoul National University on Dec. 23. South Korean media said he may give a news conference on Wednesday.
He has stood by his findings, saying they were South Korean technology and would be proved.
The discredited scientist had been widely feted by the government and admired by the public before the scandal broke.
His team received tens of millions of dollars for their research. The government dubbed him South Korea's "supreme scientist" last year, but he is likely to be stripped soon of that honour, officials have told local media.
(Additional reporting by Maggie Fox in Washington and Lee Jin-joo in Seoul)