The below is a vignette from “This Korean lab has nearly perfected dog cloning, and that’s just the start,” a Tech Insider longform feature.
Young-Joon Ahn / AP
Today, South Korea’s Sooam Biotech is perhaps the foremost cloning lab on Earth.
Not only will it clone your dog as part of its commercial pet cloning business, but it’s using its world-class cloning chops in an attempt to re-populate endangered species, transplant organs from pigs to humans, and even bring back the woolly mammoth.
But Sooam — and its radical medical advances — wouldn’t exist without the work of the controversial scientist at its center, Dr. Woosuk Hwang.
A rise like ‘the stuff of fables’
Hwang first made himself an international star and put Korea on the scientific map with
a February 2004 paper in the ultra-prestigious journal Nature. He and his Seoul National University team reported that they had extracted stem cells from a cloned human embryo. Stem cells have the capability to become any cell in the human body, meaning they could be used in healing spinal cord injuries or treating Alzheimer’s — so being able to extract cloned ones, ready to be inserted into a patient, has been called a “
medical holy grail.”
In 2005 he published a paper in Science showing that he had created 11 embryonic stem-cell lines from skin cells taken from patients. Not only that, but it required way fewer eggs than the last experiment.
To top it off, Hwang introduced the world to Snuppy — the first cloned cloned dog — in August of 2005. Time Magazine named Snuppy the Invention of the Year.
In a Nature profile published that same year, Hwang’s life story was described as “the stuff of fables.” He was born in December 1953 in the small town of Buyeo, just a few months after the end of the Korean war, when the country’s GDP per capita was $US67 dollars, making it one of the poorest countries around.
Widowed when Hwang was five, his mother invested in cows, which were valuable property. Growing up, he tended to them.
“As a child, I dreamed of becoming a veterinarian,” he said in an interview.
According to a Guardian report, Hwang was the only student in his class to advance past an elementary school education. In 1977 he earned his bachelor’s from Seoul National University, which is basically the Harvard of Korea. Then he went back and got his masters in veterinary medicine in 1979 and his doctorate in theriogenology, the study of animal reproduction, in 1982. He was briefly faculty at Hokkaido University in northern Japan before joining Seoul National University in 1986, where he stayed for 20 years.
In 1999 he cloned a cow and became a celebrity scientist in Korea. He promised that the next animal clone would be a tiger — which used to be native to the peninsula, but were wiped out under Japanese rule.
“I’ll spread the Korean people’s spirit by cloning the… tiger,” Hwang reportedly said.
After publishing those papers in Science and cloning Snuppy, Hwang became a rockstar scientist in Korea in a way that is unlike anything we’ve seen in the US since Einstein came to Princeton. People would stop Hwang in the street and ask for his autograph. He said that he was the Korean answer to Elvis. Korean Airlines offered him free first-class seats for 10 years. In 2005, Korea released a stamp in his honour, showing the silhouette of a man standing up out of a wheelchair.
Hwang was becoming an ambassador of Korean genius, and the work he was doing was uniquely suited to Korea. Other countries had cold feet about cloning: in 2005, US President George W. Bush declared that he would veto any legislation that would allow for any public funding of stem cells drawn from human eggs. “I worry about a world in which cloning would be acceptable,” he said.
In Korea, the support went all the way to the top. The Korean government gave him the title of “Supreme Scientist.”
“I want to be remembered in history as a pure scientist,” Hwang said. “I want this technology applied to the whole of mankind.”
Then it all came crashing down.
The fall like a ‘scoundrel of the worst sort’
Young-Joon Ryu joined Hwang’s lab at Seoul National University in 2002. He wrote the first draft of the 2004 paper that drew Hwang so much acclaim.
In 2004, Ryu departed from Seoul National University to work for the Korea Cancer Centre Hospital.
As he told Nature, Ryu first suspected something suspicious when the groundbreaking 2005 paper came out, in which Hwang claimed to have created 11 stem-cell lines — all while the lab experienced lots of turnover in researchers.
“I knew how difficult it was,” he told Nature. “It wasn’t logical.”
But then the story got to a place that Ryu couldn’t ignore: Hwang promised a 10-year-old with a spinal cord injury that he could walk again, and they’d soon be going to trial with a treatment that could cure him.
“I was furious,” Ryu
said, thinking that there was no way that the research was ready for trial, so doing so could injure the boy. “I wanted to stop all of that.”
As he was mulling over the decision to go public with his doubts, Ryu made a list of things in his journal that could go wrong after he came out against Hwang — like the end of his career.
So, on June 1, 2005, Ryu emailed the Korean television network Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) to tip off an investigation. The investigative report PD Su-Cheop (or Reporter’s Notebook in English) ran two programs that dug into Hwang’s lab, questioning whether the research was faked and alleging that he had coerced female members of his research team to donate their eggs.
At around the same time, Hwang’s close collaborator Shung-Il Roh held a press conference to announce that Roh had paid 20 women $US1,400 each to donate their eggs to the research, and Hwang said he didn’t know that the eggs had been paid for by Roh. Pittsburgh University biologist Gerald Schatten, who was on the research team for the 2004 paper, left the partnership after he became convinced that Hwang “had engaged in ethical breaches.”
On November 24, 2005, Hwang held a press conference that was broadcast live on all of Korea’s major television station to announce his resignation.
Ryu was forced to resign, and he had to spend six months in hiding to avoid the wrath of Hwang’s supporters.
Meanwhile, Seoul National University opened up an investigation on Hwang.
The university came to a damning conclusion in its own formal investigation that December: “The data in the 2005 Science paper cannot be some error from a simple mistake, but can only be seen as a deliberate fabrication to make it look like 11 stem-cell lines using results from just two. This kind of error is a grave act that damages the foundation of science.”
Yet even as his reputation collapsed, Hwang drew lots of support: Advertisers pulled their spots from “PD Su-Cheop,” forcing the program off the air. More than 700 Korean women signed up to donate their eggs to his research. According to “Dog Inc.” author John Woestendiek, one supporter even set himself on fire to protest “what he saw as Hwang’s persecution.”
In 2014, a feature film came out in Korea dramatizing Ryu’s story. The title: “Whistleblower.”
“Mr. Hwang is not a peculiar person. He is a portrait of us. He shows the South Korean society as it is,” Ryu told the Associated Press. “Most people believe that if we play by the rules, we can’t catch up with the advanced economies.”
“I created an illusion and made it look as if it were real,” Dr. Hwang told the New York Times in 2014. “I was drunk in the bubble I created.”
University of Pennsylvania biologist John Gearhart was one of the main editors at “Science” who accepted those fake papers. In a conversation with Tech Insider, he was unsparing.
“What [Hwang] did was the worst thing that a scientist could do not only in falsifying data but in coercing people who were part of the team, for example, to donate their eggs,” he said. “The guy, to me, was an absolute scoundrel of the worst sort.”
Even so, many Koreans defended their countryman.
It was in 2006, during this time of crisis, that Hwang founded Sooam, with financial support from private donors. About 20 of his former colleagues from SNU followed him to Sooam, according to Woestendiek, and Hwang also pulled in top geneticists from university labs around the world.
In 2009, Hwang was “convicted of fabricating data, misusing research funds, and trading illegally in human eggs” and received a two-year suspended prison term, but he never went to jail.
University of Connecticut biologist Cindy Tian, who has edited two of Hwang’s recent papers for the journal Plos One, maintains that Hwang is contributing to science in a positive way. “I do accept whatever was found — he probably has had some data that were not completely supported by scientific evidence,” Tian tells Tech Insider. “I didn’t lose faith. I think that 99% of him that’s a nice person and scientist, and 1% that is overheated the pressure to produce, to be successful in a throat-cutting field.”
And today, Hwang is pushing his field even further.
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