December 6, 2005

S. Koreans Pledge Human Eggs to Support Scientist

By Jon Herskovitz and Lee Jin-joo

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Koreans rallied outside the laboratory of an embattled, pioneering stem cell scientist on Tuesday as more than 1,000 women have pledged to donate their eggs for his research.

Among those who pledged to donate their eggs cells were two lawmakers, who took part in a separate rally at South Korea's National Assembly where parliament members also showed their support for scientist Hwang Woo-suk.

Hwang has been in seclusion since apologizing last month for ethical lapses in human egg procurement for his research.

"Dr. Hwang will not be able to return to the lab, at least, until at the end of this week because he is extremely exhausted, mentally and physically," a key team member, Ahn Curie, wrote in an e-mail to Reuters.

Hwang is considered a hero in South Korea for bringing the country to the global forefront of stem cell and cloning technology.

Support for him at home has only grown stronger despite the ethical lapses that have caused some international collaborators to pull out of projects with his team.

Hwang's team cloned the first human embryo for research and developed tailored embryonic stem cells, which could eventually be used to treat ailments such as severe spinal cord injuries.

At Hwang's lab at Seoul National University, women left bouquets of the national flower, a Hibiscus called the Rose of Sharon, for the scientist along with notes of encouragement.

"The only hope for us is Dr. Hwang. Don't trample on our one shred of hope," a woman whose son suffers from a severe kidney ailment told South Korean broadcaster YTN at the university.

The women also pledged to donate her eggs for Hwang's research, she told the broadcaster.

Hwang's case has also sent ripples through South Korea's stock market.

The MBC TV network, which aired a critical program of Hwang and apologized for its own ethical lapses in preparing another that was to have questioned Hwang's basic research, saw shares in an affiliated company called iMBC drop 6.7 percent on Monday.

MBC apologized over the weekend for using coercive tactics to force two of Hwang's team members to have interviews with them.

The YTN network, which exposed the ethical lapses at MBC with a report over the weekend, saw its share prices shoot up about 3 percent on Monday.

Shares in biotech companies have also rallied since Monday.

For example, Choongang Biotech Co. Ltd., a manufacturer of pharmaceutical products, rallied by the daily limit of 15 percent in Monday trading.

On Tuesday, South Korean lawmakers from conservative and progressive parties urged broadcast regulators to take strong disciplinary steps against MBC.

(With additional reporting by Rafael Nam)