In May, South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang Woo Suk announced that his team at Seoul National University had created human stem-cell lines that completely match the DNA of their patient donors. In February, 2004, he reported the first cloning of human embryos, from which his team harvested embryonic stem cells.
His findings, published in the journal Science, marked a giant step toward growing tissues and cells to repair or replace damaged organs, severed spinal cords, or brain cells, and raised hopes for patients with hard-to-treat diseases and injuries.
Breakthroughs in embryonic stem-cell research have spawned both praise and criticism. Some say they represent crucial biological discoveries that could improve medical care, while others maintain that such work tampers with the sanctity of human life and must stop.
Outspoken critics of Hwang's work include President George Bush, who has threatened to veto any legislation that would allow public funding for research on stem cells created with newly harvested human eggs.
In June, amid continuing controversies, Hwang met with a group of foreign and local journalists in Seoul to discuss his research and ethical questions about cloning. (These days, Hwang declines one-on-one interview with the press.) Following are edited excerpts of his meeting with the media:
Q: When do you think your research could be applied to medical care?
A:You must be very careful about predicting when stem-cell therapies could be used in real life. You must not raise any false expectations and hopes.
I could only say we have reached a turning point. I think much of the hard work has been done in terms of discovery. Stem-cell therapy has a great deal of potential, and now much of my energy will be focused on the applications.
Q: What's your view on concerns that stem-cell research could be used for unethical purposes, such as cloning human beings?
A:The cloning of human beings is not only ethically outrageous and medically dangerous but also technically impossible. Cloned human beings are merely a science-fiction fantasy. I can assure you that you won't bump into a cloned human being at least for the next century.
But advice from religious groups serves like a brake in a car or traffic lights. I'll use the brakes as necessary and pay attention to the traffic lights. I believe the work I'm doing as a scientist is for the benefit of mankind.
Q: How can you guarantee your techniques won't be used in any unethical way?
A:Sometimes transparency and confidentiality conflict, and we need to find a balance between them. I'll invite representatives from civic and religious groups to serve as advisers to our team if they guarantee confidentiality [in regard to] our research.
Q: Could you elaborate on a plan to set up a stem-cell bank?
A:Until a few months ago, I considered proposing a state stem-cell lab. But in the course of publishing this [recent] report, dozens of foreign scientists have learned about our progress, and some of them suggested joint stem-cell research and the setting up of an international stem-cell bank in Korea. The Korean government has said it will fully support the plan.
I think a stem-cell bank could be established this year. The move could serve as a significant effort to develop replacement medicine for the 21st century.
Q: In the U.S., controversies continue over stem-cell research. Do you think it will help expedite the progress of your research if the U.S. removes restrictions?
A:The leader of each nation must have reasons to pursue certain policies, and I respect President Bush's policies on that ground. On the other hand, many colleagues in the U.S. long for Korea's environment. Friends there ask me if they can pack and come to Korea for research.
I hope my friends in the U.S. will one day be able to carry out their research in their own homeland without restrictions, but within certain ethical boundaries. That will be a win-win situation.
Q: Could research on adult stem cells resolve the ethical quandary about using embryonic stem cells?
A:The potential of adult stem cells is enormous. But I can't give you convincing explanations about that area, because it's not part of my research.
I believe adult stem cells will play a big role in delivering new therapies. But adult stem cells also have critical weaknesses. If we focus on adult stem-cell research alone, we would cover only half the area we have to explore.
We should try to maximize advantages of both embryonic and adult stem cells. I hope there will be a balance in research and sponsorship for both stem cells.
Edited by Patricia O'Connell