Human egg row sends stem cell researcher into seclusion

A South Korean scientist who is the face of worldwide stem cell research has retreated to a Buddhist temple as a row over buying human eggs for research intensifies.

Hwang Woo-suk, whose research team produced the world's first cloned dog - named by Time magazine as the year's most amazing invention - has apologised for lapses in buying eggs.

Researchers for the scientist who brought South Korea to the global forefront of stem cell and cloning research, bought human eggs from women for 1.5 million won ($1400) and used eggs donated by two subordinates.

Broadcaster MBC, which aired a programme critical of Hwang's egg procurement, said it now planned a second instalment claiming his basic research might be faulty.

Yesterday, Hwang called a press conference to "reveal everything", then abruptly cancelled it.

A devout Buddhist, Hwang has retreated to an isolated temple to get away from the controversy which has stunned South Korea.

Bioethics experts say the incident has caught the attention of scientists around the world because of the sensitive nature of his studies and the hopes raised by his research.

Experts wonder how much of a setback this will be for stem cell and cloning research, both of which are already under intense ethical scrutiny because some see the work as creating and destroying human life in the laboratory.

"This is already a sensitive area of research because of the use of embryos and because of the connection to cloning - that is a hot word for people," said David Winickoff, an assistant professor of bioethics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Mr Winickoff said bioethical questions in Hwang's case include the possibility of coercion when junior researchers contributed human eggs to a study.

Another is honesty concerning Hwang's decision not to give information about the donations in a timely fashion, and there is the problem of a lack of global ethical standards for procuring human eggs for research.

"He [Hwang] really is the face of stem cell research and cloning research right now. He has been lionised in some ways," Mr Winickoff said. "Researchers in other countries are all too eager to see him go down in flames."

Buying eggs or getting them from paid employees is now illegal under Korean law but was not at the time.

Hwang, who resigned as chair of the world's stem bank, enjoys enormous public and governmental support, which has only grown stronger since he first apologised two weeks ago.

Hwang's team cloned the first human embryo for research and developed tailored embryonic stem cells, which could eventually be used to treat ailments such as severe spinal cord injuries.

Criticism of Hwang, who rose from a humble background to become a celebrated scientist, is seen by some South Koreans as an attack on national dignity.

A South Korean advisory panel will investigate ethical lapses, but the Government has shown its support for Hwang and said it would designate Hwang's stem cell research as a core technology to help him win patent rights overseas.

More than 700 women have pledged to donate their eggs for Hwang's research.

MBC has lost advertisers since airing its programme.

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