South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang facing new allegations about ethics violations

South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk is facing new allegations about ethics violations, after a news report revealed possibly hundreds of eggs had been bought for his lab with the women unaware they were being used for research.

A report late Tuesday on the MBC television network also said at least two junior scientists who worked in Hwang's lab may have donated their eggs for research, a violation of ethics guidelines.

Hwang _ who has gained world attention for his cloning breakthroughs, such as cloning the world's first human embryos and extracting stem cells from them _ has been surrounded by increasing controversy in recent weeks over allegations he may have coerced a scientist at his lab to donate her eggs.

The controversy has prompted Hwang's U.S. collaborators, including University of Pittsburgh researcher Gerald Schatten, to drop out of an ambitious international cloning project announced last month that aims to find treatments for incurable diseases.

Hwang has vehemently denied the allegations, saying all the eggs he used for his research were donated voluntarily in line with government guidelines. In the report Tuesday, Hwang admitted junior scientists consulted with him about donating their own eggs for research, but he said he persuaded them on several occasions not to do so.

Hwang's lab is conducting its own investigation and he has said he will make a complete response to the allegations when it's completed. According to the MBC report, more than 600 eggs used for Hwang's research were paid for and many of the donors were unaware their eggs were to be used for research.

One of Hwang's researchers at Seoul National University was also on the list of egg donors at Mizmedi Hospital, which provided eggs to the lab. Another scientist also suspected of donating her eggs refused comment before Hwang makes his official response.

Roh Sung-il, chairman of the board at Mizmedi Hospital, revealed Monday he paid 1.5 million won (US$1,400; Ђ1,220) each to some 20 women in late 2002 to obtain their eggs for research, contradicting his earlier remarks that none of the bought eggs were used for research.

Roh told reporters he paid for the eggs because there weren't enough voluntary donors, and that Hwang hadn't known about the payments that came out of his own pocket. The payments weren't illegal at the time. But in January, South Korea enacted a law banning commercial trading of human eggs.

Collecting human eggs is crucial for embryonic stem cell research, which involves cloning embryos to extract stem cells, the master cells that can grow into all kinds of tissues in the body and are seen as a potential source of replacement tissue for people with a variety of ailments. To do that, a human embryo must first be cloned from a patient's DNA, which is inserted into an unfertilized egg to produce the embryo.

Obtaining eggs is a problem for researchers, especially considering how inefficient cloning technology currently is. South Korean researchers in 2004 used 242 eggs from 16 donors to yield just one cloned embryo, which was destroyed after several days to extract stem cells. Despite the controversy, South Koreans' support for Hwang remains strong, AP reports.

A private foundation was launched to promote egg donations and more than 100 members of Hwang's Internet fan club have volunteered to donate their eggs. As the latest report aired on MBC, the network's Web bulletin board was filled with angry viewer messages denouncing the broadcaster for acting against national interests.


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