Getting back to the stem cell raceHwang Woo-suk, the former Seoul National University professor and scientist who fell from grace as a pioneer in cloning and stem cell research on charges of fraud, received a patent from the United States for his controversial human embryonic stem line NT-1. On Feb. 11, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office accepted the “human embryonic stem cell line prepared by nuclear transfer of a human somatic cell into an enucleated human oocyte” as No. 8,647,872.
The patent could reignite debate on the development of human embryonic stem cells. Hwang became a local celebrity for cloning the first dog and successfully extracting the world’s first stem batch from cloned human embryos. But he received international shame after the U.S. journal Science in 2005 raised questions on the validity of his research. Seoul National University ousted the professor in 2006 for falsifying research and embezzling funds. He was also accused of pressuring female research assistants and illegally buying human eggs in violation of the country’s ethics code. However, he was cleared of fraud and never went to jail.
Hwang’s name and research, once touted as the world’s most advanced technology, experienced major setbacks after his fall from grace. The budget was cut and research was stifled by numerous ethics-related regulations. Ra Jeong-chan, head of RNL Bio and a leader in Korean stem cell work, was arrested last year for insider trading, and his company was removed from the main stock exchange.
In contrast, the United States and Japan have made big strides in stem cell-related research. Japanese scientist Yamanaka Shinya of Kyoto University received the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2012 with his British partner for their discoveries in ways to develop tissue that would act like embryonic cells and replace damaged tissue. Earlier this month, a team of scientists led by 30-year-old Japanese scientist Obokata Haruko also made a stunning breakthrough with the discovery of a new method to reprogram adult cells that can grow into any type of mature tissue in the body.
The U.S. patent may provide legal protection, but it does not ensure scientific recognition of Hwang’s cell-production process. Korea must get back into the stem cell race. Commercialization on stem cell-based treatment has begun, and the competition is on who comes up with the simplest and cheapest regenerative treatment and medicine. We must not fall behind.