Professor Hwang Woo-Suk

Scientific fraud

Between 2004 and 2005, Professor Hwang Woo-Suk, a highly regarded, highly funded South Korean researcher at Seoul National University, achieved international fame for his work on embryonic stem cells and the promises his findings offered. Considered a national hero, he had surprised the world with his report of creating 11 patient-specific stem cell lines (Gottweis and Triendl 2006). His reputation quickly unraveled, however, and his research activities were halted when his success in somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) became mired in scandal, particularly when it emerged that many of his data on SCNT were fabricated. He lost his university position and his two important papers on embryonic stem cell research had to be retracted from the journal Science.

Ethics violations

Several ethics violations were committed by his team members during the course of their research. In 2009, Hwang was convicted of embezzling research funds and illegally buying human eggs for his research. Among many transgressions was the dubious manner in which the team persuaded women to donate their eggs (oocytes) for their SCNT research. Investigations revealed that many of the women who provided eggs had not given valid, informed consent, and nearly 75% of them reported that they were given cash or enticed by various financial incentives (Baylis 2009).

Some of the women who provided eggs were infertile patients who had agreed to donate any excess eggs following their fertility treatment. What they weren’t told, however, was that their eggs were initially assigned a quality grade, and the higher marked eggs were set aside for research while the lower graded ones were used for their treatment (Baylis 2009).

Others who agreed to donate for the cause of research alone were not fully informed of the potential risks and harms involved in the egg donation process or the nature of the research for which their eggs would be used.

Concerns about probable coercion later surfaced when it became clear that at least two of the egg donors were junior members of Hwang’s research team. One, a PhD student, was listed as a co-author of the 2004 Science paper (Kim 2009). The other, apparently reluctant, was escorted to the donor clinic by Hwang himself (Baylis 2009). Given the precarious position in which they presumably found themselves, the reported pressure to donate seems obvious (Kim 2009).

The other chief concern raised by the method of egg procurement was the payment that many of the women received. Some eggs were purchased directly, while in other cases women received compensation in the form of discounted fertility treatment. Though the concerns of egg trafficking – i.e., that women will be unduly pressured to donate despite the inherent risks - are well agreed upon, there is no international consensus on the acceptability of selling eggs, and there were no legal restrictions in place at the time of Hwang’s actions (Baylis, 2009).

The large number of eggs Hwang used in his SCNT experiments was staggering. The Ministry of Health and Welfare reported that Hwang acquired 2,221 eggs from 119 women while the Prosecutors’ Office reported that 2,236 eggs were acquired from 122 women. Additionally, there were eggs that were retrieved from excised ovaries. The total number of eggs purchased or traded was 1,649, approximately 75% of the total number of eggs the Hwang lab used for research (Baylis 2009).

Aftermath of the Hwang scandal

After the Hwang scandal, the topic of egg donation received intense scrutiny. A National Bioethics Committee in Korea was established and placed a hold on embryonic stem cell research which was finally allowed to resume in May of 2009 (Jung 2010). A Korean Bioethics and Safety Act was approved which has undergone several revisions. The Act of 2008 includes four guidelines that regulate egg donation:
  • The health of the donor must be evaluated and must meet a standard of health
  • The number of donations is restricted. A woman can donate oocytes only 3 times during her entire lifetime and the interval between donations should be longer than 6 months.
  • The woman can receive reasonable compensation for the donation procedure to cover medical costs, recovery, transportation expenses, etc.
  • Persons providing sperm or ovum solely for financial gain or other consideration should be punished by imprisonment for not more than 3 years (Jung 2010).

WorldStemCellHubCaptioned.pngWhile Professor Hwang’s conduct regarding paying women for their eggs was frowned upon and considered morally reprehensible by many, he committed no formal violation in this respect because at the time that the eggs included in Hwang’s 2004 Science paper were procured, there were no legal restrictions in place regarding egg procurement. Still, his other transgressions in the way of inadequate informed consent were in clear violation of the existing Bioethics and Biosafety Act in South Korea.

During the height of Professor Hwang’s purported success with SCNT, he created the World Stem Cell Hub. Here, those hoping and praying for a stem cell cure could send to Professor Hwang their health information and consent to provide somatic cells that he could convert to stem cells using SCNT. Right after the Hub went live, so many volunteered that the Hub web site crashed. Soon after Professor Hwang was discredited, leaving countless patients with dashed hopes of recovery.

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Hwang.pngDisgraced stem cell scientist Woo Suk Hwang was handed a 2-year suspended prison sentence on 26 October, 2009 for embezzlement and bioethics law violations. And the scientific community seemed to just shrug.

Several factors blunted the impact of the fraud, including the discovery, just 6 months after Hwang's papers were retracted, that introducing just four genes into mouse skin cells could turn them into something that closely resembles embryonic stem cells, which pushed nuclear-transfer research like Hwang's into the background.

Some even see a silver lining in the Hwang affair. First, it has increased attention to research ethics and documentation (Normile 2009). But importantly, the Hwang scandal also showed that the scientific community could would police itself as the whistle blowers who exposed Professor Hwang were from his own research team. (Source:"Sentenced for fraud Hwang Woo-suk, pioneer of (false) 'human cloning'" in, 10/26/2009)

Despite the fraud and ethics scandal, Professor Hwang did produce one unequivocal success: the first cloned dog. Snuppy, the Afghan puppy, and world's first cloned canine was produced using SCNT using a somatic cell of a male afghan hound and the gestational surrogacy of a Labrador retriever mother.

Snuppy (Source: Reuters/Seoul National University)

Family Photo: Snuppy (for Seoul National University puppy) is between the male Afghan hound (left) from which he was cloned, and his surrogate mother, a yellow Labrador retriever (right).

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  • Baylis, F. (2009). "For love or money? The saga of Korean women who provided eggs for embryonic stem cell research." Theor Med Bioeth 30(5): 385-396.
  • Gottweis, H. and R. Triendl (2006). "South Korean policy failure and the Hwang debacle." Nat Biotechnol 24(2): 141-143.
  • Jung, K. W. (2010). "Regulation of human stem cell research in South Korea." Stem Cell Rev 6(3): 340-344.
  • Kim, H. (2009). "Disgraced Cloning Expert Convicted in S. Korea." Associated Press(26 October).
  • Kim, M. K. (2009). "Oversight framework over oocyte procurement for somatic cell nuclear transfer: comparative analysis of the Hwang Woo Suk case under South Korean bioethics law and U.S. guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research." Theor Med Bioeth 30(5): 367-384.
  • Normile, D. (2009). "Scientific misconduct. Hwang convicted but dodges jail; stem cell research has moved on." Science 326(5953): 650-651.