SEOUL, South Korea — It takes two scientists in Hwang Woo-suk’s lab here mere minutes to clone what will become a pig embryo.
One, with her eyes pressed closely to a microscope and wielding the tiniest of needles, pokes a hole in a pig egg before gently squeezing out its genetic content. Another researcher with a straw-like instrument then inserts new genetic material from the cloning candidate. Chances are, the scientists’ creation in the world’s most renowned cloning laboratory will turn into a thriving pig embryo.
It doesn’t take much more to clone a human embryo — a technological first accomplished here last year to international clamor.
The Vatican and President Bush condemned the work. The South Korean government reacted with pride. It issued a postage stamp and handed out public funds. Gaggles of envious foreign stem cell scientists now trek continuously to Hwang’s lab for lessons.
'Things are looking good'
“They have all the know-how, the resources, the money and they have a law that protects their work,” said Jose Cibelli, a Michigan State University scientist who assisted with the Korean cloning project last year. “I don’t see any reason these guys will slow down. Things are looking good for them.”
The idea is to clone human embryos not to make babies but to harvest human embryonic stem cells, which are created in the first days after conception and give rise to the human body. Scientists hope to someday use stem cells to replace and repair diseased and damaged parts of the body.
Stem cell scientists believe that cloning will offer a way around immune rejection problems when injecting living cells into patients. At the very least, the scientists say intentionally cloning a human embryo with a disease will offer them unprecedented insight into how many illnesses develop.
And so far, nobody in the world has legitimately reported accomplishing this feat except Hwang and his crew.
University of Pittsburgh stem cell researcher Gerald Schatten has been fruitlessly trying to clone monkey embryos for years. He’s visited Hwang’s lab three times and picked up a new technique he’s sure will pay off soon. He’s squeezing the genetic material out of the monkey eggs instead of sucking them out with a pipette.
“We could have been struggling for decades,” Schatten said. Now our work is taking off fabulously. I think the whole world owes the Republic of Korea a debt of gratitude.”
Among scientists discussing collaborating with Hwang is Ian Wilmut, the Scot who cloned Dolly the sheep.
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Creator of Korea's first cloned cow
Hwang didn’t aim to be a human cloner superstar. He initially focused his work on the cows his impoverished family relied on for their livelihood after the Korean War ended in 1953. Hwang’s single mom raised her six children on earnings from feeding neighbors’ cows.
“Taking care of cows was our life,” Hwang recalled. “Since childhood, I aspired to become a scientist studying cows.”
He resisted teachers’ entreaties to train as a medical doctor and instead earned a veterinary doctorate at Seoul National University. He created South Korea’s first cloned cow in 1999.
Hwang has also genetically engineered cows that he says are resistant to mad cow disease, which will be tested in Japan next month. And he is raising genetically modified pigs whose organs can one day be transplanted into humans.
Despite Hwang’s veterinary pedigree, his cloning prowess led him naturally to humans.
At odds with conservatives
Now, Hwang, 52, is chief defender of one of the most contentious research areas going. He’s at odds with religious conservatives, including many Roman Catholics and other Christians, who believe life begins at conception and should neither be created nor destroyed in a petri dish.
“We can’t abandon the dignity of precious, living people because of this very abstract and dogmatic view” argued Hwang. “We shouldn’t make the mistake of hurting the bigger human dignity for the sake of the microscopic one.”
South Korea bans cloning for reproductive reasons but allows licensed scientists to do it for medical research. Hwang’s team is the only group with such a license and he vows never to clone to create a baby.
He also faces the thorny issue of egg collection. To clone, researchers need a fresh supply of women’s eggs. Egg donors are given hormone injections that cause them to “superovulate” several eggs at once. Some women’s rights group fret that the injections could harm the donors.
Hwang says many of his donors have relatives who suffer from illnesses that can be potentially cured with embryonic stem cells. In South Korea, selling eggs is illegal.
Hwang receives about 1 billion won ($992,000) in annual government research funding. That amount will soon be increased to 3 billion won ($3 million) a year after the government officially designates him a “top scientist” — a new recognition essentially set up for Hwang.
Last year, supporters of his research set up a private fund that has so far collected more than 1 billion won.
The South Korean government spent more than 11 billion won ($10.9 million) on stem cell research and the figure is likely to grow this year. By comparison, the United States spent about $25 million in 2004, but no federal dollars can be spent on stem cell research using any stem cell lines created after 2001.
Still, recognizing the controversy, Hwang is developing ways to harvest embryonic stem cells without using embryos.
Hwang refused to go into detail about his current work but said he would announce more advances within the year.
He also said he would be looking to buy monkeys this year for research, but declined to elaborate.
Hwang’s commitment for his work is rekindled each time he runs into a patient who can be potentially cured with stem cells.
“Anyone, unless he has a heart of steel, will recognize and accept the need to advance with the research when he sees these patients,” he said.
Yet Hwang is hesitant to say when his discoveries could be used to cure diseases.
“It won’t be until far, far in the future,” he said.