Why South Koreans Defend a Cloning Scientist

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Stepping Down: Hwang announces his resignation

If there's any consolation for Dr. Woo Suk Hwang, the South Korean stem cell pioneer who abruptly resigned Thursday from an international stem cell facility he helped to found amidst an ethics controversy, it's this: at least his own lab now has plenty of women willing to donate their eggs for research.

It was a lack of human eggs three years ago that is the source of Hwang's trouble today. The South Korean researcher, who in 2004 became the first to clone human cells and extract stem cells from them, stepped down from the World Stem Cell Hub, but will remain in charge of his lab at Seoul National University after confirming that two members of his team in 2003 had donated eggs for stem cell research. The news came just days after Hwang's partner, Sung Il Roh, disclosed that he had paid more than two dozen women $1,500 each for eggs used in the same research. Neither action was illegal: it wasn't until this year that South Korea barred payments for eggs, and there are no laws preventing subordinates from participating in a study they are conducting, although there are scientific ethical guidelines prohibiting such potentially coercive practices. However, the developments heightened the moral tensions crackling around a lab already facing concerns that its research could lead to full cloning of humans.

Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, the journal that published the study in question in March 2004, told TIME today that he will be publishing a correction in coming weeks concerning the source of the eggs, clarifying that the donors had not, as the study originally stated, all been unpaid volunteers. After that, he said, they will await the reports from the investigations conducted by the South Korean Ministry of Health and by Seoul National University, where Hwang is a faculty member, and where he will continue to do stem cell research, to determine whether the integrity of Hwang's results were compromised in any way. So far, that does not seem to be the case. "We have no reason to doubt the scientific validity of the study," says Kennedy.

Despite the public mea culpa, Hwang has considerable support in South Korea, where he's something of a national hero. Earlier this week, the female head of an info-tech consulting company, along with 11 other business people, a lawmaker and a female comedian, set up a non-profit foundation to encourage women to donate eggs to stem cell research. Eighty women have signed up so far, a foundation spokesperson said. There has been a backlash against broadcaster MBC for airing a program this week that highlighted the ethical questions about how Hwang obtained eggs. Koreans have called companies that ran commercials during the weekly documentary's time slot and threatened to boycott their products if they didn't stop showing the ads or move them to a different time slot. Woori Bank and Kookmin Bank, two of the country's biggest lenders, have said they will pull the spots, and other companies are reportedly contemplating similar moves.

Hwang with Snuppy earlier this year
Hwang with Snuppy earlier this year

The news was a sudden reversal to what had been a very good year for Hwang. His lab produced a series of major steps forward in 2005, including the creation of the world's first cloned dog, Snuppy, by a process that was named by TIME earlier this month as the Invention of the Year. At a website called "I Love Hwang Woo Suk," decorated with a Korean flag and pictures of Hwang with Snuppy, many members have posted messages saying they would love to donate eggs. The founder of the site staged a 10-hour, one-man demonstration in front off MBC's offices Thursday, holding a candle as he stood in a cardboard box on which was written: "MBC must kneel down and apologize for dragging down Dr. Hwang."

Ku In Hoe, a professor of medical science at the Catholic University of Korea in Seoul and a member of the Korean Bioethics Association, described Korean reaction as "very emotional and very supportive" of Hwang's research: "They are enraged at the idea that ethical concerns could block scientific advances." She said government and media are confusing the public by obscuring the real issue — that "Korean science has lost credibility in the world." Seoul National University's oversight committee announced that its investigation showed no ethical or legal problems, she notes, but "Korea's representative scientist just turned out to be a liar. We should not try to cover this up. This scandal exposed the ugly underbelly of Korea's research environment."

In the past year, Hwang also refined his human-cell-cloning process to yield the first stem cells from patients with diseases, bringing medicine a step closer to the possibility of curing illnesses from Alzheimer's to diabetes with a patient's own rejection-proof tissues. Now his new lab will try to duplicate that scientific winning streak without him.