Magazine article Newsweek International

Cloning College; South Korea's Biomedical Researchers, Unhampered by Politics, Do World-Class Research on the Cheap

Magazine article Newsweek International

Cloning College; South Korea's Biomedical Researchers, Unhampered by Politics, Do World-Class Research on the Cheap

Article excerpt

Byline: B. J. Lee

The thermostat on the sixth floor of Building 85 is cranked up to the body temperature of a pig--the better to work with the body parts--but Kim Hye Soo doesn't seem to mind the heat. Neither is she rattled by the blood and gore. Her colleagues routinely make trips to Seoul slaughterhouses and come back with grisly remains, from which they extract ovaries. Kim, whose husband also works at the lab, typically puts in 14-hour days, seven days a week, and the work--she's peering into a high-powered microscope, skillfully puncturing the membrane of an ovary with a tube too thin to see with the naked eye--is tedious and intricate. "I sacrifice a lot," she says. "For the past five years, there has hardly been any personal life. But I do this research because it can help cure incurable diseases."

A big pile of grant money and a swank lab come in handy when you want to make major medical breakthroughs. But the 40 researchers at Seoul National University's College of Veterinary Medicine have shown that grit and determination--and the absence of government interference--can be just as important. Two weeks ago, Hwang Woo Suk and Moon Shin Young, who direct the work at the cloning lab in Building 85, published a paper in the prestigious journal Science that shocked biomedical researchers and put South Korea at the center of one of the hottest and most controversial research fields: stem-cell therapy.

Researchers have for years thought that stem cells, which can grow into any type of cell in the human body, may one day provide cures for diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes. They can't know for sure, though, without experimenting with stem cells harvested from human embryos, which in turn are created by cloning. While the most well-endowed labs in the United States, Britain, France and elsewhere are hamstrung by a political backlash against cloning research, South Korea has quietly filled the vacuum.

Although the lab in Building 85 is brand new--it was built a year ago--the college hasn't devoted many resources to it. Its budget of less than $2 million a year comes from philanthropists and revenues from tuition--the government gives no money for stem-cell research. "Foreign researchers are surprised to see how little we spent for the project," says Hwang, declining to give a figure. "Dedication amid scarcity is sometimes better than laziness amid abundance." The lab occupies only the sixth floor of Building 85--a 10- by 10-meter space in which researchers in blue jumpsuits and hairnets work elbow to elbow. Dean Lee Mun Han says the college tends to concentrate on a few important research projects, like bird flu and mad-cow disease, "rather than chasing fashionable projects that bring money."

The tight budget has meant that researchers have had to make do with less. For instance, whereas most veterinary schools have their own farms, Hwang's lab borrows animals from privately owned farms. Researchers drive for hours into the countryside just to implant cloned embryos into the uterus of a cow or pig, which tends to decrease the success rate. To make up for this disadvantage, the researchers simply do more experiments. "There's no secret to our success," says Hwang. "Our philosophy is simple--no Saturday, no Sunday and no holiday. Just work."

The work is hard, and scientists in Building 85--like those elsewhere in South Korea--are poorly paid. …

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