Hwang Woo-suk, a South Korean stem cell scientist who caused a major stir in the scientific community for academic fraud in 2005, has recently lost a legal battle over the rights to a technique critical to re-creating the woolly mammoth.
According to local reports Tuesday, Hwang had filed a criminal complaint against Park Se-pil of Jeju National University and his research colleagues, accusing them of embezzlement and attempted blackmail.
However, the Seoul Eastern District Prosecutor’s Office said it did not find sufficient evidence of the claims against Park and his team, closing the case that had been open for years.
In 2012, Hwang started working with Russian researchers at the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk to clone mammoths using cell samples retrieved from a preserved mammoth carcass found in the Siberia region in eastern Russia.
The plan was to replicate the mammoth cells in a lab. From the copied cells, researchers would extract the nucleus, which contains the animal’s genetic information. The nucleus would then be inserted into the eggs of female elephants, the closest living relatives to the now-extinct animal.
Hwang’s mammoth cloning project had garnered international attention at the time, even prompting National Geographic to air a detailed documentary on the Korean scientist and his work in 2013.
However, Hwang and his Russian research partners ran into technological hurdles even before the cloning process could begin. For years, the team continuously failed to artificially cultivate the mammoth cells in the lab.
In 2015, Hwang recruited the help of Park and his team, who claimed they were able to successfully cultivate the mammoth cells needed for the nucleus transplant, based on the samples provided by Hwang.
Hwang and Park ended up clashing over the ownership of the cell cultivation technology. Hwang argued that Park’s work constitutes a part of his own research and that he thus possesses the sole rights related to all the related experimental methods.
Meanwhile, Park claimed Hwang provided the mammoth cells without prior conditions and the research should be considered a collaborative effort, as his team’s cell cultivation method plays a critical role.
According to records, Park refused to hand over his work to Hwang without signing proper terms of agreement, stating that he would rather dispose of the cultivated mammoth cells than freely pass them on to Hwang.
Hwang then sued Park and his team on embezzlement and attempted blackmail. However, the prosecution decided not to pursue the charges of the alleged offenses earlier this month.
The recent investigation has also prompted new allegations that Hwang illegally imported the mammoth samples into Korea without duly reporting to local authorities. Hwang has denied such allegations to the prosecution, according to local reports.
Hwang Woo-suk, 64, is a former professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Seoul National University. He was placed at the center of one of the world‘s biggest scientific scandals in 2005 for fabricating evidence he had successfully cloned human embryos and yielded stem cell lines from them.
Recently, the disgraced scientist rose to the domestic spotlight for being a close collaborator to Sunchon National University professor Park Ki-young, who was recently appointed as the new chief of the Science, Technology and Innovation Office at Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT.
However, Park, who had been a co-author of Hwang’s fraudulent research paper in 2005, resigned from her post last week after the local science community and politicians fiercely opposed her appointment, citing ethical lapses.
By Sohn Ji-young (email@example.com