(33) Hwang Woo-suk: rise and fall of Korea‘s most famed scientist
By Andrew Salmon
For a nation in which educational attainment is massively respected and high technologies are passionately embraced, the Seoul National University professor stood, poised, on the brink of global superstardom. Not only was he smooth, charming, intelligent and charismatic, the nation rallied around the scientist who might be in line for a Nobel Prize and whose name might ― just might ― one day be uttered in the same breath as those of Newton, Darwin, Curie, Einstein and Fleming.
Alas, it was not to be. The fall from grace of stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk would be as spectacular as his meteoric ascent.
Poor scientist and the stem cell God squad
Hwang was born to a poor family in 1953, the year the devastating Korean War stuttered to an uncertain end. His father died when he was five but Hwang harbored the dream of being a scientist. An animal lover who worked on a farm to make the money that his widowed mother could not supply, Hwang earned an MsC in veterinary science, then a Ph.D. in theriogenology, the science of animal reproduction, at the elite Seoul National University, or SNU.
There, he won a reputation for almost fanatical diligence ― he was said to arrive at his laboratory at 6 a.m. every morning. This was the kind of virtue highly approved of in Korea. Hwang’s early work was with pigs and cows, though his cloning experiments in this field, while gaining him some visibility within Korea, were not backed up by internationally credible data.
Then, in February 2004 he dropped a bombshell, claiming that his SNU research team had cloned the first human embryos and extracted stem cells from them. It was groundbreaking stuff because prior to Hwang’s announcement, it was widely believed that this procedure was impossible due to the complexity of primates’ cellular structures. Hwang said his team had created a single cell line from 242 human eggs. The findings were published in the prestigious journal Science; the same year, Time magazine named him one of the most influential people of 2004.
This was science with a capital “S” as the breakthrough Hwang claimed to have made offered tremendous possibilities.
Stem cells are central to the building of human tissue in the early development process of the body; they can morph into a wide range of different cells, both healthy and unhealthy. If healthy stem cells can be cloned, they can ― potentially ― be used to treat a wide range of conditions using replacement therapy. Moreover, they can be used independently to research how, for example, diseases attack cells.
This branch of science is controversial. Religious groups believe that the raw material from which stem cells are sourced are themselves forms of human life, and by creating little chunks of humans in Petri dishes, scientists are, critics believe, playing God. The neo-conservative administration of George W Bush ― an administration with a strongly Christian support base to appease ― banned stem cell research. (The ban has since been rescinded by the Obama administration.) Other nations, however, proceeded and with the United States out of the picture, it seemed as if Korea might have a chance to leap into the front rank of this promising new field.
Hail, hail, the SNU hero
Korea’s top man in the field was Hwang ― and he had more wonders still to show.
In May 2005, his team claimed to have created 11 human embryonic stem cells using 185 eggs. This claim was also published in Science that year. The cells the team allegedly created were somatic cells from patients of different ages and gender, while their stem cell of 2004 was created with eggs and somatic cells from a single female donor. The latter development meant patients could receive bespoke treatment with no risk of adverse reaction.
There was yet more to come. In August of 2005, Hwang revealed that his team had been the first researchers in the world to clone a dog ― an Afghan hound named Snuppy (SNU + puppy). The photographs of a grinning Hwang and a charming Snuppy were splashed across newspapers around the world.
Meanwhile, Hwang was not only attracting the attention of the globe, he was being lauded nationwide. The Roh Moo-hyun administration was a vocal supporter, naming him “Top Scientist” (a position that offered a multi-million dollar stipend) and awarding him a medal. A civic group with the self-appointed mission of burnishing the national brand, the Corea International Communications Institute, honored Hwang with a special award. Bookstores filled up with children’s books extolling his spirit and dedication. A stamp was minted in his honor.
A new national hero had been born but a storm cloud was now appearing on the horizon.
An American scientist who had collaborated with Hwang on his 2005 research made the surprise announcement that he would cease working with him, citing ethical concerns about the eggs used in the research and also suggesting that some elements of the report published in Science were fabricated.
Allegations of coercion of research assistants to provide their own eggs and also the buying of eggs were ― if true ― serious ethical breaches. Hwang said he was unaware of related guidelines but admitted that he had lied about the source of the eggs. In a show of remorse, he announced he was resigning from a number of (largely recently created) official posts.
Still, while scientists abroad raised eyebrows ― after all, human cloning was a hyper-sensitive area of science with no room for moral lapses ― most of Hwang’s local support remained firm. Ethical guidelines, their point seemed to be, were less important than the potential end results of Hwang’s research. After all, the national economic miracle had been birthed by a government and businessmen who took, when necessary, very considerable liberties with regulations and laws in order to reach their goals.
A group of lawmakers announced their support for Hwang, hundreds of women reportedly came forward offering to donate their own eggs for the ongoing research activities and parents with seriously ill children pleaded for his work to continue.
That June, a group of MBC documentary-makers, acting on the principle of investigative reporting rather than nationalistic imperative, produced a program that probed and added to the allegations. But when it was found that the program makers had themselves coerced a source to speak, there was an uproar. The documentary team was denounced as unpatriotic. Given the strength of public feeling, their program, a well known investigative show named “PD Notebook,” was pulled off the air. The would-be documentary producers were forced to make a public apology.
Thus far, Hwang’s problems were ethical and alleged. But with questions hanging over his research, SNU started an internal investigation on 17th December as prominent scientists from abroad, including Scotland’s Ian Wilmut, the famous cloner of the sheep “Dolly,” called on Hwang to have an independent, public peer review of his two landmark papers.
On Dec. 29, SNU’s probe team announced its results. It determined that all 11 of Hwang's claimed stem cell lines had been fabricated. On Jan. 10, 2006, the university announced that his 2004 and 2005 papers for Science were both fabricated. The U.S. publication, which had published Hwang’s research without fully substantiating its veracity, found itself with a very red face. On Jan. 11, the magazine unconditionally withdrew both papers.
Hwang’s world was coming apart. On Jan. 12, following the SNU and Science debacles, a defensive Hwang, who had been suffering from stress, called his own press conference. There, he did not admit cheating but instead blamed other members of his team for deceiving him. He also pleaded for time, saying that if given six months, he would prove that human stem cell cloning was, indeed, feasible using his technologies.
But in the wake of the shattering denouements of the last two weeks, the game was up. Prosecutors raided his home the same day, seizing disks and documents. Bookshops had begun prudently removing their hagiographies of Hwang; his stamp was discontinued. And his previously vocal supporters - perhaps considering their own personal and professional reputations – quietly evaporated.
Hwang had attempted to resign from his professorship at SNU in December but the university, citing the ongoing investigation, had refused to allow him to fall on his sword, reserving the right to perform its own execution. In March 2006, Hwang was officially booted from his professorship.
His disgrace was complete but other problems were only just beginning. On May 12, 2006, he was indicted on charges of fraud, embezzlement and a breach of bioethics laws. His trial ended three years later with a two-year suspended sentence; Hwang was convicted of fraud, though not embezzlement.
Though banned from stem cell research in South Korea, he continued to work in animal cloning and a number of his papers have since been published ― though after the Science fiasco, not in the most prestigious journals.
Hwang Woo-suk: Icon?
Hwang’s rise and fall is, in some ways, symbolic of 21st century South Korea. This is a nation that has risen from the ashes to achieve incredible things. It is also a nation that famously reveres education and embraces high technology. At the same time, Korea craves recognition, believing that its astonishing national success story does not win the respect it deserves from international society.
Hwang seemed to embody the solution. Here was a self-made man, a diligent scientist, a living validation of the oft-criticized Korean education system. Here was a man who would present the world with a great gift ― a Korean gift. And here was a man who might be able to not only cure the incurable but who ― just might ― win a Nobel, a prize much lusted after by some sections of Korean society.
Yet Hwang also embodied much of the dark side of Korea’s rise. The evidence suggests that he felt compelled by the ferocious competitiveness of society to deliver more than he could, faster than he should. His response? He not only ran roughshod over ethical guidelines, he lied and falsified.
His tragedy is that he was a scientist of no mean skill. One of his remarkable scientific achievements ― the cloning of Snuppy ― stands to this day: the veracity of that experiment has been independently confirmed. Moreover, it 2007, it was alleged that his human stem cell research, while not what he had claimed it to be, had, in fact, made some very significant breakthroughs which may have influenced subsequent American innovations in the field. But with stem cell research being an ultra-controversial subset of modern science, there was no room in the field for the ethically challenged.
Though disgraced, Hwang quietly continues to work both inside and outside Korea. The latest news concerns his collaboration with Russian scientists on a dream project: The cloning of an extinct species, the wooly mammoth. If he realizes that spectacular vision ― i.e. bringing a long-dead species back from an eons-long extinction ― it seems likely that the world will overlook his ethical lapses.
But that visionary experiment remains ― at time of writing ― still a dream.
Andrew Salmon is a reporter and the author of three works on modern Korean history: “U.S. Business and the Korean Miracle: U.S. Enterprises in Korea, 1866 ― the Present,” “To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951,” and “Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950.”