Stem Cell Sleuth

Seoul is funding Hwang Woo Suk in a bid to turn Korea into a global research hub

He's not a politician, a tycoon, or a pop star. But these days, Hwang Woo Suk may enjoy more popularity and respect in South Korea than the hottest celebrity. He is a pioneer of embryonic stem cell research -- and a national hero. The government even issued a postage stamp in his honor in February that juxtaposes an image of growing stem cells with silhouettes of a man rising from a wheelchair, walking, and embracing another person.

Hwang grabbed headlines in February, 2004, when he and his team at Seoul National University announced that they had cloned human embryos and harvested stem cells from them. In May the team produced research showing they had created stem cell lines that match the DNA of their patient donors' cells. That was hailed as a giant step toward cultivating stem cells that might one day repair or replace diseased organs, severed spinal cords, or brain cells destroyed by diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Hwang's accomplishment has emerged from a country that has not been a leader in basic science. He was first to reach the goal of "personalizing" stem cell lines, in part because rival U.S. scientists have been hampered by restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. While some Koreans share President George W. Bush's ethical concerns in this area, surveys show that the vast majority support Hwang's work. Most seem to agree with him that the potential medical benefits outweigh other considerations. "Hopes of giving new life and joy to those suffering from incurable diseases make me renew my determination," Hwang says -- adding that he will remain sensitive to other people's worries and "bear them in mind to make sure I won't veer off course."

As for the notion that his research could lead to cloning as a reproductive technique, Hwang claims such fears are overblown. Human cloning would be "ethically outrageous and medically dangerous" -- and for now it is "merely a science-fiction fantasy," he insists. "You won't bump into a cloned human being at least for the next century."

The Seoul government is strongly backing Hwang's research. It is spending $43 million to build him two new labs and this year will add $1 million to his $2 million budget. What's more, to help turn Korea into a global hub for stem cell research, Seoul has endorsed a plan to open an international stem cell bank by yearend.

Hwang, 52, says his work with human stem cells would not have been possible without animal research. As a veterinary science professor back in 1993, he was the first Korean to employ in vitro fertilization in cattle. Hwang cloned a cow in 1999 and a pig in 2002. Now his lab handles more than 1,000 eggs from cows and pigs a day. It has produced five genetically modified cows, and the team hopes to produce some that are resistant to mad cow disease.

Hwang was born during the Korean War and grew up in a poor mountain town in the central Korean province of South Chungcheong. His father died when he was 5, and his mother borrowed money to buy a cow, which became his family's most valuable possession. As a schoolboy, Hwang helped care for the animal. "I learned to communicate with the cow eye to eye and decided to become a veterinarian," he says.

In the near term, Hwang's goal is to show that laboratory-engineered stem cells can help heal damaged spinal cords in rats, dogs, and possibly monkeys. If these trials go well, in two to three years he'll seek permission to conduct human trials in Korea and the U.S. Whatever direction the stem cell debate may take overseas, to Hwang it's all about saving lives.

By Moon Ihlwan

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