Disgraced stem cell pioneer carefully engineers a comeback

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Disgraced stem cell pioneer carefully engineers a comeback


Hwang Woo-suk By Park Sang-moon

At the height of his fame as a stem cell researcher and animal cloning expert, Hwang Woo-suk opened the World Stem Cell Hub at Seoul National University Hospital in October 2005. The opening ceremony was attended by then-president of Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, and such scientific luminaries as Ian Wilmut, the British embryologist who cloned Dolly the sheep. The ambitions of the enterprise were plastered on banners that read: “Hope of the World. Dream of Korea.”

Thanks to Hwang, sufferers from diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord accidents and a myriad of other ailments were putting their faith in Korea to find cures that researchers in the United States couldn’t go near due to religious concerns about experimenting on human embryos.

But within weeks of the opening of the stem cell hub, Hwang’s career lay in ruins when it turned out that his stem cell research was ethically flawed and partially faked. The international prestige that had come to Korea turned to scorn.

And Korea punished Hwang for making it look like a nation of corner-cutters and cheaters. He was fired from SNU and convicted of embezzling government funds and breaking bioethics laws. (Those convictions are under appeal.)

Hwang is now trying for a comeback. With a group of researchers who followed him from SNU, he is publishing research, doing commercial cloning and entertaining reporters from around the world at his nonprofit Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Guro, southwestern Seoul.

Here is how his comeback is going so far:

On Feb. 11, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office accepted Hwang’s first human embryonic stem cell line called SooamhES1, or NT-1, which was created while he worked at the SNU lab in the early 2000s. This is the research that led to his downfall. A patent is not scientific validation for the work and Hwang has still not convinced the international scientific community that he successfully created an embryonic stem cell line from a cloned human embryo.

Hwang’s researchers have published more than 40 papers in journals in and out of Korea.

Hwang’s animal cloning research was never questioned, including Snuppy, the first dog to be cloned in 2005, who is alive today and living at SNU. To raise money for his comeback, Hwang is now offering to clone dying or dead pet dogs for a hefty fee. Many of his customers are rich Americans, although an Indian politician had his pet poodle cloned. Around 50 pet dogs have been cloned so far at a fee of $100,000 each. Sooam is earning revenues of around $1 million a year on the business.

Hwang’s labs are cloning search-and-rescue dogs for the local police and Korean cows to produce superior hanwoo beef (high-quality Korean beef).

His labs continue to research the cloning of pigs to possibly provide body parts for human transplants.

His researchers are cooperating with Russian efforts to find frozen remains of the extinct woolly mammoth and clone it back to life a la Jurassic Park.

A big part of his comeback is getting publicity and Hwang has been opening up his research labs to reporters from inside and outside of Korea for briefings, tours and playtime with cute, cloned pet dogs. But he rarely sits down with the reporters himself to answer questions. Most reporters are merely allowed to watch him do a surgical procedure on an animal through a glass wall. A reporter from the U.S. science magazine Nature did a major feature on Hwang in its January edition, but Hwang refused to comment for the story. “Maybe ‘in a couple of decades,’ he wrote by email,” the story related. The New York Times ran a big piece on Hwang last week and said it managed to interview him. But the story contained only one quote: “I created an illusion and made it look as if it were real … I was drunk in the bubble I created.”

Hwang agreed to an email interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, which is not the same as a face-to-face interview. It doesn’t allow follow-up questions, the heart of a real interview.

Here is the email interview:

Q. Your commercial company, H Bion, received a patent this week in the United States for the NT-1 embryonic stem cell line. Previously it was awarded patents in Canada and New Zealand. What exactly is the significance of the awarding of the patents?

A. Material and method patents are awarded through a rigorous confirmation process, which means the NT-1 stem cell line was legally recognized as being derived from SCNT (somatic-cell nuclear transfer).

Analysts say the awarding of the patents still does not resolve the controversy over flaws in the research for the NT-1 embryonic stem cell line. Can that controversy from 2005 and beyond be put to rest? And, if so, how?

It is currently illegal to distribute the NT-1 stem cell line due to the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s rejection on the application for registering the stem cell line. This legal issue has to be resolved in order for other scientists to gain access to the stem cell line for confirmation.

You and your nonprofit Sooam Biotech Research Foundation are prohibited from research on human stem cells in Korea. Is this a political decision? Is this likely to change and when?

It’s a legal and political decision. Hopefully, recent legal actions abroad can influence this domestic decision.

Sooam Biotech Research Foundation is involved in many other areas of research such as cloning pets, Korean cows for hanwoo beef, search dogs, pigs for transplant use and even a quest to bring the Russian mammoth back from extinction. How much of these activities are meant to rebuild your reputation and bring you back to the main work of human therapeutic cloning - stem cells - and how much is for the animal cloning research itself?

Animal cloning research has a value of its own. But we strongly believe that through animal research, our team has built strong foundations for continuing human therapeutic cloning research.

One of your more colorful current businesses is cloning people’s deceased pet dogs. Aside from the benefits for those pet owners, this is basically just a side business, correct?

Sooam is an independent research organization. Some projects have to be turned commercial in order to provide necessary funding for other research. Dog cloning is one of them.

Would it not be more profitable to work on animal embryonic stem cell research and to help cure diseases in animals rather than cloning dead pets?

We are also working on animal embryonic stem cell research.

Since 2005, other techniques for producing stem cells have been researched including Dr. Haruko Obokata’s stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP. Is your research dated now?

Embryonic stem cells are still the standard of pluripotency, but not much about it is known mostly because of lack of stem cell lines available. Therefore, it is essential to do more research with embryonic stem cells.

You have admitted that your downfall in 2005 was the result of some ethical and research lapses but that the research on human stem cells was valid. After those bitter controversies, why should the world scientific community trust you again?

Because we have built strong foundations in animal cloning research even after the controversy, and similar techniques can be used in human stem cell research. Well-recognized journals have published our research results during the last seven to eight years, proving that our animal cloning research is sound and valuable.

In the Korean societal context, do you think that you were elevated too high before the revelations of 2005, and that you were dragged down too low as a result? Did your punishment exceed your transgressions?

I take full responsibility for my past mistakes.

BY ANTHONY SPAETH AND CARLA SUNWOO [carlasunwoo@joongang.co.kr]

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