By Kim Tong-hyung
It's debatable whether the international science community will ever take Hwang Woo-suk seriously again. However, the disgraced South Korean cloning pioneer seems to be having little trouble finding peers among his compatriots who are ready to invest their faith in him.
After landing a deal with the Gyeonggi provincial government for research on genetically modified pigs to be used for organ transplants, the Hwang-led Sooam Biotech Research Center has been successfully recruiting a number of established biotech scientists.
Hwang's new colleagues include Shin Tae-young, a Texas A&M University scientist who is credited for a leading role in producing the world's first cloned cat in 2002.
Hwang, then an employee of Seoul National University (SNU), was involved in creating the world's first cloned dog, Snuppy, in 2005.
Joining the cloners are Park Yeon-choon, a former New York University gene scientist who has been working with Sooam since the start of the year, his former NYU colleague Park Chi-hoon, and former Osaka University researcher Jeong Yeon-hui, Sooam officials said.
Hwang had already been working with a wealth of local talent, including the Chungbuk National University research teams led by Hyun Sang-hwan and Jeong Eui-bae, known for their expertise in gene modification and animal cloning.
Kyungpook National University's Jeong Kyu-shik, Yonsei University's Ka Hak-hyun, and Gacheon University of Medical Science's Kim Dae-young have also been collaborating with Sooam.
``Despite the lack of state funding, Sooam has been reporting advancements in cloning and other biotech fields,'' said Chungbuk University's Hyun, who said Sooam is being contacted by six more local governments for collaboration on biotech projects.
Under a partnership with California-based biotech company BioArts, Sooam cloned Trakr, a dog that sniffed out survivors from under the rubble of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, as well as clones of the dogs of five BioArts clients.
Aside from the commercial activities, Hyun said that Hwang's team at Sooam has so far produced 15 papers on various cloning studies, some of them currently under review for publication in peer-review journals such as Nature. The team has been involved in various research projects pursuing the possibilities of therapeutic cloning, including a study on cloning beagles.
In May, Sooam researchers announced they had for the first time created cloned pig embryos and used them to make embryonic stem-cell lines.
Hwang, then an SNU researcher, achieved rock-star status among scientists in 2004, when his research team claimed it had successfully cloned a human embryo and produced stem cells from it, a technique they said could open new opportunities to provide cures for a range of diseases.
The following year, Hwang's team claimed to have created patient-specific stem cells from cloned embryos, regarded at the time as an even greater achievement.
But Hwang's reputation was left in tatters after an SNU panel exposed both studies as fraudulent the following year, which led to his dismissal from the school. Since then, Hwang has been leading his own research.
A scientist said he believes ``Hwang has the talent for cloning animals, not in human organs.''