Research center in limbo as funding, hope vanish
Less than three months after it was launched amid great fanfare, the World Stem Cell Hub has now become as meaningless as the work of its founding director, Hwang Woo-suk.
Just a few weeks ago, 14,000 people had listed their names on the institution’s roster, hoping to join research studies with an ambitious goal: the development of cures for now-incurable diseases using customized stem cell clones. Often mentioned as candidates for such treatments were Parkinson’s Disease and Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Now the spanking-new facility is empty and operations have slowed to nearly a halt. Located in Seoul National University Hospital’s clinical medicine research wing in northern Seoul, the hub opened on Oct. 19; the opening ceremony drew hundreds of Korean and foreign scientists. Several, like Ian Wilmot and his cloned sheep Dolly, were well known to the popular as well as the scientific press.
The Korean government wanted the hub to be a stem cell bank and global center for stem cell research. Branches of the center were planned in the United States, Great Britain and elsewhere. President Roh Moo-hyun attended the opening ceremony and emphasized the government’s support for stem cell research.
In light of the recent revelations that Hwang Woo-suk’s research team did not create cloned customized stem cells, Seoul has hastily withdrawn that vocal and financial support. All government funding for the hub this year has been canceled. At the National Assembly, the budget committee crossed out 4 billion won ($4 million) in funding for research and development, and another 7.5 billion won for operating costs that had been spoken of last year did not make it onto the Assembly’s formal agenda. Thought is now being given to merging the hub with other stem cell research laboratories that are funded by the government.
Seoul National University, which still hopes to keep the project alive, is seeking other sources of funding the laboratory, perhaps by shifting its research aims.
“It’s impossible to run the hub with our initial goals of stem cell studies now that government funding has been cut off entirely. Who would have thought this sort of thing would happen?” an official at the university hospital said. “Since the hub is a government project, we are going to do our best to keep it going and are looking into utilizing the facilities for other purposes for the time being.”
Those “other purposes” include using the aseptic laboratory rooms to treat patients with immune disorders such as leukemia or pediatric blood tumors.
The hospital is still unsure about what to do regarding stem cell studies. “We’re leaving all possibilities open now for the future of the hub, and will discuss it more with researchers in Korea and overseas before we decide,” said Seong Sang-cheol, the head of Seoul National University Hospital. He added that stem cell studies would not be confined to the embryonic type, but would also include work with adult stem cell studies.
The hospital’s labor union, facing job losses, has turned 20-20 hindsight on the university’s role in creating what it called the “Hwang myth.” and that hospital management should come up with detailed plans for the hub as soon as possible.
“The hospital used the hopes of patients suffering from incurable diseases as bait to have them register at the hub, and have thus committed a crime that cannot be forgiven. They must take responsibility for this,” the union said in a statement last week.
Lee Kang of Incheon is not so much angry with Dr. Hwang or the hospital as he is at the government. “If it’s true that there were no stem cells, the government was responsible for setting up the hub in the first place. They should have inspected his work more carefully before giving the people false hopes,” he said. On the third day after the hub opened, Mr. Lee had registered his 18-year old son, who suffers from cerebral palsy as a research subject.
But for other disabled people, like Park Seung-yoo, who was paralyzed from the waist eight years ago in a car accident, it doesn’t matter at this point who is responsible or who should take the blame. All that matters for them is the technology that doesn’t exist. Mr. Park says he could not sleep after hearing that there were no patient-specific stem cells to begin with. “I had pinned all my hopes on Dr. Hwang after I heard that he had cured a dog that with a spinal cord injury through stem cell treatment,” he said. “I think about how I’m never going to walk again and I just want to die.”
by Wohn Dong-hee