KOREA: MBC threatened Hwang's staffer

Testimony alleges MBC aimed to discredit Hwang with information gathered under false threats

The Korea Times
Sunday, December 4, 2005

By Kim Tae-gyu

One of the junior staffers under Korean stem cell pioneer Hwang Woo-suk on Sunday said the nation's broadcaster MBC threatened him to get information unfavorable to Hwang.

Kim Son-jong, the feeder cell expert who is now at the University of Pittsburgh, on Sunday made the remarks during an interview with the all-news cable channel YTN.

"MBC producers visited me on Oct. 20 and insisted Hwang's research is all fake and his two papers published by Science will be canceled. He even said Hwang will be arrested," Kim said.

"Then he argued the police investigation would start in the United States and urged me to reveal everything I know under condition of protecting me from the probe," he added.

His comments are expected to hurt the credibility of MBC, which has questioned the authenticity of Hwang's research, as well as the scientist's ethics.

Late last week, MBC producers of the investigative program, "PD Notebook," claimed Hwang's cloned embryonic human stem cells might not be real.

The producers told a press conference that they had a research institute, IDGene, test 15 stem cell samples provided by Hwang's team twice and learned one of the sample's DNA does not match its donor.

Asking Hwang to carry out a second round of tests to clear away all suspicions, MBC producer Han Hak-soo said last week that he got a crucial confession in Pittsburgh, but Kim flatly rebuffed that.

"They continued to claim that there are no (patient-specific human embryonic stem) cells so I made it clear that there are. After double-checking it from Seoul, I called Han and confirmed it again," Kim said.

Kim contended MBC duped him and his two Korean colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh into accepting the interview, believing the TV network was making a documentary.

"MBC even did not let us know that the broadcaster recorded the interview. After knowing that, I asked it not to air the interview, but it refused the request," Kim said.

MBC reiterated the TV station would reveal everything on the air tomorrow night on its program "PD Notebook."

Kim and two other researchers are now under professor Gerald Schatten at the University of Pittsburgh, who pulled out of the 20-month-old partnership with Hwang last month out of ethical concerns.

Kim said he reported all the contents of the interview with MBC to Schatten and that event appears to be the major cause for Schatten to sever ties with Hwang.

Hwang became a global cloning superstar through back-to-back exploits of establishing the first cloned human embryonic stem cells in 2003 and patient-specific stem cells this year, both published as cover stories in the U.S. journal Science.

However, the integrity of his study came under fire after MBC late last month accused Hwang of having used the eggs from of junior staffers.

Hwang admitted the allegations are true on Nov. 24 and resigned from all posts to take a responsibility for it, including the chairmanship of the world stem cell bank that opened October to give embryos for global scientists.

Then he left his lab inside Seoul National University since then. According to his underlings, Hwang is expected to return to his lab this week and hold a press conference.