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Many scientists were astonished by how far the South Koreans had come. Only 15 months ago, Hwang's group created a stir as the first--and so far the only--lab to generate human stem cells via SCNT. Back then it had to use 242 eggs before it was able to create a single, viable set of stem cells from a healthy woman. This time it was able to create 11 stem-cell lines using an average 17 eggs each. "The efficiency is exceptionally high--much higher than I would have thought possible," says Doug Melton, a stem-cell researcher at Harvard University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Boston. "It's about what has been achieved in mouse cells after decades of work."
For Berg, Melton and their American colleagues, there is a touch of envy blended with the praise. Stem-cell research in Asia--not just in South Korea but in China, Japan and Singapore as well--is rapidly outdistancing the work being done in the U.S., reflecting, in large part, real differences in government policy. South Korea, for example, recently banned the use of cloning techniques for the creation of babies but fully supports Hwang's work--to the tune of $2 million a year. By contrast, researchers in the U.S. who want to study human embryonic stem cells are restricted to a handful of federally approved stem-cell lines--most of which, they say, are of such poor quality they cannot be used. Or scientists can forgo federal funding and look to state or private financing for their work. "In this country, we've been stumbling to create public policy," says Melton.
But differences in regulatory environments alone don't explain the South Koreans' success, as TIME's visits to Hwang's lab in early May and again last week made clear. The laboratory is a whirlwind of purposeful activity, and nobody is busier or more focused than Hwang, its director.
Hwang was born just after the Korean War and grew up in a poor rural village in Chungcheong province, three hours from Seoul. "It was difficult to survive," he says. His father died when he was 5, and his mother raised six children by helping wealthier neighbors take care of their cows. After school, Hwang would look after the three cows assigned to his family. He decided then that he wanted to study the animals when he grew up.
A veterinary scientist by training, Hwang says his pioneering work with human stem cells would not have been possible without an extensive animal-research program. Building on what he learned from his experiments on cows, pigs and ducks, Hwang developed his own assembly line of nearly two dozen steps to improve the efficiency of human stem-cell production. "I wanted to develop a unique technique, not just mimic and modify what others had done," he says.
For example, whereas Hwang's assistants gently squeeze the nuclei from eggs donated by female volunteers, researchers at other labs use a microaspirator to suck out the contents, which Hwang believes may damage the eggs unnecessarily. "Professor Hwang jokes that we're good at manipulating the egg this way because we can use chopsticks," says Okjae Koo, one of the graduate students in the lab.