Stem cell funding leaves out field of disgraced scientist
|Bona, left, and Peace, two of the three female dogs that were cloned at Seoul National University. [JoongAng Ilbo]|
A deep hole has been dug and a cement foundation is in place at the abandoned construction site of a stem cell research building at Seoul National University. A ring of boards surrounds the spot, just as they did last April, when the funding for the project was aborted following accusations that famed scientist Hwang Woo-suk had faked his research.
Today, Korea is at a crossroads. In a country with few national resources, the Science Ministry announced last month it would focus on three “future core technologies” this year ― biotechnology, nano technology and space technology. That includes stem cell research, specifically for curing diseases. However, scientists involved in embryonic stem cell research, Mr. Hwang’s specialty, must rely largely on private funding.
The August 2005 ground-breaking for the building at Seoul National had been a glitzy affair. The government-run Korea Science and Engineering Foundation pledged 12.5 billion won ($13.3 million) for the building itself, and another 4 billion won for facilities inside. That was three months before the Hwang scandal broke.
“The building was funded by the Science Ministry for Mr. Hwang’s research, so when they pulled back all the funding for Mr. Hwang, the building’s funding naturally went with it,” said Yang Il-seok, dean of Seoul National University’s veterinary college. “We’d like to finish construction, but a building like that is more than a penny or two.”
Recently, the government announced it would spend a total of 143.8 billion won ($153.4 million) on biotechnology this year, a 6.6 percent increase from last year.
This announcement was in line was a wider plan that the government presented late last year.
Last November ― roughly a year after the Hwang scandal broke
out ― the government announced a 10-year plan called “Bio-Vision 2016.” According to that master plan, the government will invest a total of 14.3 trillion won, beginning this year, in order to become one of the top seven countries in the world in biotechnology.
Of that, 430 billion won during the 10-year period will be devoted toward treatments of disease using stem cell-based research.
A major research project called the World Stem Cell Hub also came to an abrupt halt in the wake of the Hwang scandal. Seoul National University Hospital spent 6.5 billion won signing up more than 20,000 patients with incurable diseases to be subjects of clinical trials. Today, the facility is being used for entirely different purposes.
The Science Ministry has its own reasons for putting off the construction of the Seoul National building.
“We realize that the researchers who will be working in the building aren’t Mr. Hwang or those related to the fraud, but we’re afraid of the public uproar that the building would cause. People would say the government is trying to support Mr. Hwang, and that public opinion is not something you can ignore, especially since Mr. Hwang’s trial is not over yet,” a ministry official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The government has not sent a clear signal on where it stands on certain forms of human embryonic stem cell tests following the Hwang scandal.
The Welfare Ministry drafted a bill on revising the bioethics laws in September. It suggested that researchers be banned from transplanting human stem cells to embryos of humans or other primates. that have had their nuclei removed. The National Ethics Commission, however, is still undecided on what the government’s legal stance should be. Therefore, no action has been taken.
Regardless of the government’s support, scientists are continuing vigorous research on stem cells on two different levels. Those working on adult stem cells are testing actual treatments on people, while embryonic stem cell research is taking place on a more basic research level.
The Catholic University of Korea established a 1.5 billion won cell production facility last month to form a steady source for clinical trials. The Catholic Church in Korea has a committee that supports research on adult stem cells.
Park Se-pill, a professor at Cheju National University, established a research center called Mirae Life Engineering Research Center in Seoul late last year that specializes in the research of embryonic stem cells.
The CHA Medical Group is another aggressive investor in stem cell research. It released plans last year to erect a complex in Pangyo, a satellite city of Seoul, for stem cell studies, an investment of approximately 100 billion won. The group is planning to move its research facilities to the two-building complex in 2010 because, as the owner of the CHA Hospital chain, it envisions applying its research directly to clinical trials. To avoid ethical issues in obtaining eggs for embryonic stem cell studies, these scientists are using leftover frozen eggs from fertility treatments.
The animal cloning scene is also extremely lively. Lee Byung-cheon, who worked with Mr. Hwang on cloning Snuppy, the world’s first cloned male dog, succeeded in cloning three female dogs. Mr. Lee, who is still at Seoul National University, said that compared to the success probability of 0.8 percent that they had for Snuppy, the probabilities were up to 25 percent for the female dogs.
It is not just big names that are involved. The small bio venture RNL Bio created a stem cell bank called “Lipostem,” which stores fat cells from your belly. Services such as Biostar preserve stem cells from the placenta when a mother gives birth. STC Life, an 18-year old biotechnology firm, signed an agreement with another biotech firm last month to develop stem cell treatments used to regenerate skin cells. Last year, Yahoh Communication developed a machine that automatically extracts stem cells without needing a person manually do the job. Hwang still researching
Disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk is quietly still working on stem cell research.
He has set up a research facility in Gyeonggi province, not far from Seoul, and is working with a little more than two dozen former team members from Seoul National University, which fired him for fraud.
A source close to Mr. Hwang, who wished to be unnamed, said Mr. Hwang is working on developing organs and other stem cell research, but not using human embryonic stem cells. The government has banned him from participating in embryonic stem cell research.
Meanwhile, hundreds rallied in downtown Seoul on Saturday, urging the government to let Mr. Hwang restart his embryonic stem cell research.
His trial on fraud, embezzlement and violating bioethics laws is still pending.
His band of supporters believes he was framed.
Scientists, however, don’t think Mr. Hwang will have a chance to return to the academic arena. “This is a democratic world, so he can do what he wants, but his career as a scientist is over,” said Jeong Hyung-min, director of the CHA Stem Cell Research Institute.
By Wohn Dong-hee Staff Writer [email@example.com]