He's not a politician, a tycoon, or a pop star. But these days, Hwang Woo Suk may enjoy more popularity and respect in South Korea than the hottest celebrity. Hwang is a pioneer of embryonic stem cell research -- and a national hero. Indeed, the government issued a postage stamp in February in his honor that shows an image of growing stem cells juxtaposed with silhouettes depicting a man rising from a wheelchair, walking, and embracing another person.
Hwang grabbed headlines in February, 2004, when he and his team at Seoul National University announced the cloning of human embryos, from which stem cells were harvested. In May, the team produced research showing they had created stem cell lines that match the DNA of their patient donors' cells. That was hailed as a giant step toward cultivating stem cells to repair or replace diseased organs, severed spinal cords, or brain cells destroyed by diseases such as Alzheimer's.
Hwang's accomplishment comes in a country that has not been a leader in basic science. He beat rival U.S. researchers who have been hampered by U.S. restrictions on the federal funding of stem cell research. While some Koreans share President George W. Bush's ethical concerns, surveys show the vast majority support Hwang's work.
For his part, Hwang argues that the potential medical benefits outweigh other considerations. "Hopes of giving new life and joy to those suffering from incurable diseases makes me renew my determination," he says.
Hwang thinks the worry that his research could lead to cloning as a reproductive technique is overblown. He agrees that human cloning would be "ethically outrageous and medically dangerous," but adds that for now it is "merely a science-fiction fantasy." He predicts that "you won't bump into a cloned human being at least for the next century."
The Seoul government is strongly backing his research. It is spending $43 million to build him two new labs and this year will add $1 million to his $2 million budget. To help make Korea a global hub for stem cell research, Seoul has endorsed a plan to open an international stem cell bank by yearend.
Hwang, 52, says his work with human stem cells would not have been possible without animal research. A veterinary science professor, he was the first Korean to engineer the birth of a cow through in vitro fertilization in 1993. Hwang cloned a cow in 1999 and a pig in 2002. Now his lab handles more than 1,000 eggs from cows and pigs a day and has produced five genetically modified cows -- an effort to find a breed resistant to mad cow disease.
Hwang has come a long way. He was born during the Korean War and grew up in a poor mountain town in the central Korean province of South Chungcheong. His father died when he was 5, and his mother borrowed money to buy a cow, which became his family's most valuable possession. As a schoolboy, Hwang helped care for the cow. "I learned to communicate with the cow eye to eye and decided to become a veterinarian," he says with a grin.
Hwang's goal is to use laboratory-engineered stem cells to treat rats, dogs, and possibly monkeys for ailments such as damaged spinal cords. If the animal trials go well, in two to three years he'll apply for permission to conduct human trials in Korea and the U.S. Hwang acknowledges there are other points of view on the ethics of his research, but as far as he is concerned, it's all about saving lives.
By Moon Ihlwan