- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

SEOUL — When professor Hwang Woo-suk enters his stem-cell laboratory in Building No. 85 at Seoul National University, the blue-suited junior scientists don’t even look up from their microscopes.

They don’t have time. “We have no holiday in this laboratory,” said Mr. Hwang, who has never taken a vacation with his family.

But they do sense his intense presence. Since the world’s premier geneticist published a groundbreaking stem-cell study last month, Mr. Hwang and his team have not rested on their laurels. The lab works seven days a week, charging ahead with cutting-edge research that has left better-funded colleagues wondering how the South Koreans did it.

Although their study in the May 19 issue of the journal Science is far from providing the answer to disease cures, it marks a key step in the direction. Mr. Hwang’s 43-member team — collaborating with scientists in the United States and Britain — isolated 11 stem-cell lines that match the genetic code of patients with a variety of diseases.

In February 2004, Mr. Hwang’s team successfully transferred DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the material that carries a person’s genetic code) to a batch of 242 eggs donated by 16 women. What is remarkable about his latest study is that it involved only 185 eggs from 18 donors, and 11 stem-cell lines were created.

The study is a leap for somatic-cell nuclear transfer, also know as “therapeutic cloning,” a procedure that uses days-old donated eggs. It is not illegal in the United States, but in 2001 President Bush halted federal funding for all but a few existing stem-cell lines, a move American scientists say has limited what could be promising advances in disease treatments. When stem cells are taken out of an embryo, the latter is destroyed.

Despite the threat of a presidential veto, the House last week voted to lift the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. The bill, which passed 238-194, fell short of the 290 votes needed to override a veto by Mr. Bush.

Mr. Hwang’s method involves removing the genetic material from an unfertilized human egg and injecting new genetic material. In his study, skin cells from humans were injected into the eggs whose original DNA was removed. After a slight electric charge, the eggs respond as if they had been fertilized: the cells multiply, producing new stem-cell lines using the DNA introduced from the skin cells.

It is hoped that the stem cells, which can be made compatible with different types of body tissues, can be used to repair damage from diseases such as Parkinson’s or spinal-cord injuries.

“He always says ‘Do not hurry. We need time,’ ” said Kang Sung-keun, an assistant professor who worked on the study with Mr. Hwang. “He doesn’t want to give patients false hopes.”

In contrast to such research in the United States, Mr. Hwang’s work has the full backing of the South Korean government. There are still ethical concerns in a country where nearly half of its 48 million people identify themselves as Christian, but the drive that typifies the country’s strong national spirit has supported Mr. Hwang’s research.

After pulling itself up by its bootstraps to become the world’s 12th largest economy, South Korea has come a long way since the end of the devastating Korean War in 1953.

Mr. Hwang, 52, grew up poor in South Chungcheong province. His mother raised cows, and this led to his interest in becoming a veterinarian.

“I came from a very isolated, very small area,” he said. “At the time, most Koreans faced poverty and starvation. Our family also was very poor.”

But in the past five decades, the Seoul government has given priority to education and aimed be a world leader in advanced science. It sends its best and brightest to study overseas, but nearly all return home to spread the knowledge they have found. Seoul National University is publicly funded, and Mr. Hwang said that unlike U.S. practice, his team’s salaries are separate from the $2 million it receives solely for research.

The stem-cell study published last month cost $250,000.

“Based on my experience, I think research projects don’t depend on the amount of money spent,” Mr. Hwang said. “I think the result of scientific research depends on [scientists’] diligence.”

News organizations widely quoted him as saying his team could delicately manipulate eggs because Koreans are deft with chopsticks. “I can say this Korean traditional dining habit would be one very small factor affecting the research outcome,” he said with a smile.

The pride South Korea has taken in Mr. Hwang’s discoveries perhaps has prevented other ethical battles. In Korea, abortion is illegal unless the mother’s life is in danger or the fetus is defective. But it is widely known that doctors practice abortion, and a few dozen per year are arrested for doing so.

Whereas in the United States, forces opposed to abortion also have united against stem-cell research, this has not occurred in South Korea. Abortion is not a pivotal election issue, and representatives in the National Assembly back Mr. Hwang’s research.

Mr. Hwang thinks the support of the Korean public at large has tempered some opposition from Christians, but says some criticism remains.

“When they realize the real goal of our research, they change their opinion,” Mr. Hwang said. “Even some of the top Christian leaders in Korea agree with our research.”

On May 25, the Korean government announced it would form a stem-cell research task force and pledged an additional $1 million for Mr. Hwang’s research. “Hwang’s results have showed us Korea’s potential, and confidence that ‘we can do it’ in science and technology,” said Park Ki-young, President Roh Moo-hyun’s main science adviser.

The intellectual-property rights to his work belong to the Korean government, and an opposition lawmaker recently called for the government to create a fund to secure international patents for Mr. Hwang’s work.

The government also has responded quickly to emerging legal issues involving stem-cell research. When Mr. Hwang announced last year that his team had cloned a human embryo and removed stem cells, there was no law regarding cloning.

On Jan. 1, a law banning the cloning of human beings — which Mr. Hwang has said he has no intention of attempting — went into effect, allowing therapeutic cloning. In February, South Korea voted against a draft of a declaration by the United Nations that urged governments to ban all forms of human cloning.

“The Korean government is fully supportive of our study,” Mr. Kang said.

Mr. Hwang’s assistants help him into his blue one-piece garment before entering the laboratory. After a powerful shower of air in a sterilization chamber, Mr. Hwang enters the lab, which he likens to a factory, with all the elements of an assembly line.

There, technicians remove eggs from cow and pig ovaries. As the eggs are prepared, they are taken to an adjacent room where scientists carefully remove the original genetic material. The eggs eventually get an injection of chosen genetic material. After a weak electrical charge, stem cells start dividing in the egg.

Every day of the week, eggs are taken to farms and implanted in 10 cows and seven pigs as part of ongoing cloning experiments, Mr. Hwang said.

By the end of the year, the professor hopes to be injecting rhesus monkeys and baboons with human stem cells, the first such trials to test cross-species compatibility. Scientists haven’t figured out what causes the stem cells to turn into other specialized cells; discovering that trigger, and being able to control it, is one goal.

Mr. Hwang declined to speculate when stem-cell research will yield safe treatments for human medical conditions, but said: “When this technology can be applied to the human patient, I want it to help all of mankind.”

Mr. Hwang told the Associated Press in Seoul two days ago that he plans to open a stem-cell bank by the end of the year to help speed the quest to grow replacement tissue to treat diseases.

The bank would consolidate existing stem-cell lines in one research location. To treat a patient, researchers would look for a cell line that provides a close match to the patient’s immune system, the professor said. It would resemble the process used in finding donors for organ transplants.

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