SEOUL, South Korea — Disgraced cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk has relocated his research base to Thailand to avoid the ethical disputes his work would cause in South Korea, a scientist close to Hwang said Wednesday.
Hwang and some 10 associates have been working at a national university laboratory in the southeast Asian country since June, said Park Se-pill, a Cheju National University professor and well-known stem cell scientist.
Park declined to further identify the university, but added that the school is providing active support for Hwang.
Hwang stays in Thailand for about 2-3 weeks at a time and comes to Seoul to handle other affairs, Park said, adding that he often communicates with Hwang.
Park did not elaborate, but Hwang has to attend periodic court hearings in an ongoing fraud trial that he has faced since his breakthroughs in cloning human embryos were revealed as fake.
Hwang is focusing his research in Thailand on "inter-species nucleus transplant," a technology that refers to removing the nucleus from an adult human cell and transplanting it into an egg of an animal, such as a pig, cow or rabbit, to harvest stem cells, Park said.
Stem cells are master cells that can grow into any bodily tissues, which scientists say could lead to revolutionary new cures for hard-to-treat diseases.
The purpose of inter-species nucleus transplants are to treat diseases by growing fresh patient-specific stem cells using animal eggs and then transplanting them into the human body so that they can replace the damaged cells of an organ, Park said.
Hwang's now-discredited breakthroughs were about doing the same process between human cells.
In 2004, Hwang claimed his team had produced a human embryo through cloning and that they had recovered stem cells from it. The following year, his team announced they succeeded in producing stem cells tailored to specific patients.
But those achievements were discovered in late 2005 to have been faked, forcing Hwang's downfall from being a national hero to an international disgrace for South Korea.
He was fired from the prestigious Seoul National University, lost a license to research into human cloning and was put on trial for allegedly accepting funds under false pretenses, embezzlement and illegally purchasing human eggs for research.
Still, Hwang could have continued his research into inter-species cloning because South Korea does not have any law governing that area yet, Park said. But Hwang decided to move to Thailand due to a backlash the study would draw from activists.
Park said he also studied inter-species nucleus transplants in 2002, but faced huge criticism from civic and religious groups claiming it was wrong to mix human cells with animal eggs.
"These days, the ethical yardstick is more important than judicial judgments," he said. "That's why professor Hwang went to Thailand."
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