South Korean Scientist in Seclusion, but Storm Continues
By Jon Herskovitz
SEOUL — South Korea’s pioneering stem cell scientist has been in seclusion since he spoke of ethical lapses in procuring human eggs, but with national pride and global science at stake, the affair shows little sign of dying down.
Hwang Woo-suk, the scientist who brought South Korea to the global forefront of stem cell and cloning research, has sought solace at a Buddhist temple after apologizing on November 24 for those lapses in his work, according to media reports.
Bioethics experts say the incident has caught the attention of scientists around the world because of the sensitive nature of his studies and the hopes raised by his research.
Experts wonder just how much of a setback this will be for stem cell and cloning research, both of which are already under intense ethical scrutiny because some see the studies as creating and destroying human life in the laboratory.
“This is already a sensitive area of research because of the use of embryos and because of the connection to cloning — that is a hot word for people,” said David Winickoff, an assistant professor of bioethics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Winickoff said bioethical questions in Hwang’s case included the possibility of coercion when junior researchers contributed human eggs to a study.
Another was honesty concerning Hwang’s decision not to give information about the donations in a timely fashion, and there was also the problem of a lack of global ethical standards for procuring human eggs for research.
“He (Hwang) really is the face of stem cell research and cloning research right now. He has been lionized in some ways,” Winickoff said by telephone. “Researchers in other countries are all too eager to see him go down in flames.”
South Korean medical researchers say they expect the ethics flap to have little impact on Hwang’s core research.
Hwang enjoys enormous public and governmental support, which has only grown stronger since his apology, they noted.
PRIDE OF THE COUNTRY
Time magazine recently called the world’s first cloned dog produced by Hwang’s team the most amazing invention of the year. Dogs are considered one of the most difficult animals to clone.
Hwang’s team also 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.
Criticism of Hwang, who rose from a humble background to become a celebrated scientist, is seen by some South Koreans as an attack on national dignity, according to Yoon Pyung-joong, a social philosophy professor at South Korea’s Hanshin University.
“The mass society of Korea produced and manipulated Dr. Hwang as a scientific hero based on its patriotism and humanitarianism,” Yoon wrote in a weekend opinion piece for the
daily JoongAng Ilbo.
Korea endured so much misery in the past century, first under Japanese colonial rule and then in the destruction of the Korean War, that South Korean pride quickly swells for someone such as Hwang who could elevate the country’s global status, Yoon wrote.
A South Korean advisory panel will look into ethical lapses, but the government has shown its support for Hwang, and said last week it would designate Hwang’s stem cell research as a core technology to help him win patent rights overseas.
More than 700 women have pledged to donate their eggs for Hwang’s research.
South Korean broadcaster MBC, which aired a program critical of egg procurement for research, has lost advertisers and been the subject of picketing campaigns. It plans soon to air a segment saying Hwang’s basic research may be faulty.
Hwang’s team members have said their findings have been vetted through a strict process of peer review and have stood the test of scientific scrutiny.
“MBC has become the subject of strict criticism with charges of us trying to undercut out nation’s interest through our reports,” Choi Seung-ho, a chief producer at MBC, told a news conference last Friday.
(With additional reporting by Jack Kim and Lee Jin-joo)