SEOUL (Reuters) - The president of one of South Korea's most prestigious universities apologised on Wednesday for scientific fraud at his school, saying two fabricated papers on stem cell research had embarrassed the country and science.
On Tuesday, an investigation panel at Seoul National University said a team led by once-heralded and now disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk faked two landmark papers on embryonic stem cells, but did produce the world's first cloned dog.
"Hwang's research team did something scientists should never do. This incident left a mark that cannot be erased in Korea and the international science community," Seoul National University President Chung Un-chan told a news conference.
Chung said he had asked a committee to punish the professors involved in the scandal.
Hwang's research had raised hope for those suffering from debilitating and deadly diseases because it seemed to hasten the day when genetically specific tissue could be grown to help repair damaged bodies and cure ailments such as severe spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's disease.
"For embarrassing the country, as the president of this university, I am deeply to sorry to everyone," Chung said in a statement in Korean.
Hwang was a professor at the university, widely regarded as one of the top seats of learning in the country.
Now prosecutors are saying he could be the subject of a criminal probe on suspicion of misusing state funds.
The crime of fraudulently obtaining state funds can be punished by up to 10 years in prison, local media reported.
The South Korean government stripped Hwang of his title of the country's "supreme scientist" on Wednesday. The Science and Technology Ministry gave Hwang the distinction in June 2005 with the promise of 3 billion won ($3.06 million) to 5 billion won a year in subsidies for up to five years.
SUPPORT AND SADNESS
Hwang resigned in late December when the panel said in an interim report that data had been deliberately fabricated in one of his team's papers and that Hwang bore major responsibility.
Medical researchers say the episode -- which has shocked and shamed many South Koreans -- 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.
"All of us who admired Hwang are deeply saddened by this revelation. However, it is likely to have a minimal effect on stem cell biology per se and work in the field will continue," Dr Stephen Minger, of Kings College London, wrote in an email.
The panel had some good news for Hwang. It said DNA tests 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.
Hwang still has many supporters in South Korea and they are urging the government to give him six months to prove his claims. Some supporters planned to rally in Seoul later on Wednesday.
South Korean media reported Hwang may make a statement to the public on Wednesday. He has been in seclusion since December 23, when he resigned.
Hwang has stood by his findings, saying they were South Korean technology and would be proved.
(Additional reporting by Maggie Fox in Washington and Patricia Reaney in London)