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After the Storm Over Stem Cells

  • May 23, 2006
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Storm Over Stem Cells
Koreans lost a national hero in the scandal. But their scientists still lead the way in biotech research.

By B. J. Lee
Newsweek International

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. 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 was a placard 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. They hope to transplant cloned animal organs into human bodies within a decade as treatment.

The attention lavished on Hwang's lab has helped attract billions of dollars in venture-capital investment to biotech start-ups. Macrogen, a DNA analysis and sequencing company, was the first biomedical firm to list on Kosdaq, the Korean exchange of technology stocks. Medipost, a prominent maker of arthritis drugs based on adult stem cells, is also traded on the market, along with about a dozen other promising biotech start-ups."There are many hidden jewels in Korea's bioindustry," says Lee Jeong Ryul, an organ-transplant expert at Seoul National University Hospital.

There may even be something to salvage from Hwang's own work. A probe by Seoul National University concluded that the 11 stem cells Hwang claimed to have produced from cloned human embryos were in fact obtained from fertilized embryos, not cloned ones. Regardless of the outcome, his team is still the best in the world at the delicate work of transplanting the nuclei of tiny cells;which is central to further progress in stem-cell research.

Although Koreans are in shock, so far there's no sign that they will turn against stem-cell research. The government says it will continue its support. Now that Hwang's project will no longer be hogging the spotlight, funding will be more equitably allocated to worthy projects, analysts say. Scientists are already talking about setting more stringent ethical guidelines for themselves, standards they see as essential to repairing the damage to their credibility."Hwang's scandal can make the whole Korean science community look fraudulent and incompetent," says Oh at Catholic University."If we fail to regain our international trust, we will be doomed, regardless of our ability and honesty." On the other hand, the ordeal may put Korea's scientific enterprise on a firmer ethical foundation."Hwang's scandal can be a blessing in disguise," says Han Yong Man, a researcher at the state-run Korea Research Institute of Bioscience & Biotechnology. Humility often is.

January 9, 2006
2006 Newsweek, Inc.
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