Storm over Stem Cells; Koreans Lost a National Hero in the Scandal. but Their Scientists Still Lead the Way in Biotech Research

Article excerpt

Byline: B. J. Lee

The world's stem-cell hub at Seoul National University Hospital seemed like the epicenter of global biotechnology when it was dedicated last October. The new lab was built chiefly to house Hwang Woo Suk, South Korea's stem-cell-research pioneer, whose work on human cloning was thought to be the best bet for curing many intractable diseases, and Korea's ticket to a world-class biotech industry. It's no wonder that Hwang's compatriots treated him like royalty. Korean Air gave him lifetime first-class tickets. President Roh Moo Hyun pledged $2 billion in government funding for biotech work, gave Hwang a security detail available to ministers and put his face on a stamp. Then everything came crashing down. Last month Hwang resigned after revelations that his lab had faked much of the work. The lab is now nearly deserted. The only clue to its previous glory last week was a placard that read: HOPE OF THE WORLD, DREAM OF KOREA.

Koreans are mourning the fall of their hero. Korea's scientists, however, take a different view. They are confident that long after the scandal is forgotten, Korea's biotech industry will have made up the ground it lost in the past few weeks, and more. While Hwang's sensational claims were drawing the attention of the world's media, behind the scenes researchers were making significant progress in other aspects of stem-cell research. "Dr. Hwang was not the only stem-cell scientist Korea had," says Dr. Oh Il Hoan, director of Catholic University Hospital's cell-research center in Seoul. "We still have the technology, manpower and infrastructure to lead global stem-cell research."

Even before Hwang's work became well known, Korean fertility doctors had garnered a global reputation. A team at Maria Infertility Hospital, for example, produced stem cells from fertilized eggs in 2000. Their work may lead to the ability to grow specific human organs to replace damaged ones. Work on adult stem cells has also made swift progress in recent years. Nearly 100 treatments for such diseases as Parkinson's using adult stem cells from bone marrow and umbilical cord blood are undergoing clinical testing. "Korea's adult-stem-cell researchers are on a par with, if not ahead of, world leaders," Oh says.

Korean researchers also lead in the promising field of xenotransplants--the use of animal organs in humans. Doctors at Seoul National University Hospital and other institutes have performed numerous xenotransplants using animal organs cloned by Hwang's team. …