Before the Fall
In an interview pre-scandal, stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang explains his methods and motivation.
Tony Law for Proto
On Thanksgiving Day, when Korean stem-cell pioneer Woo Suk Hwang admitted that an associate had, without Hwang’s knowledge, purchased human eggs, and that he himself had lied about egg donations that junior members of his research team had made to his study, the announcement made headlines around the globe. Not that media attention was anything new for the researcher, whose laboratory at Seoul National University had been credited with a list of firsts: the first stem-cell line derived from a mature human cell; the first lines from the mature cells of diseased patients (a step toward helping patients grow their own replacement tissue); and the first cloned dog.
But Hwang’s ethical lapse turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg. After investigating charges by Hwang’s fellow researchers, a team at Seoul National University confirmed that some data in the experiments involving diseased patients’ stem cells had been fabricated. Hwang has resigned, but stands by his claim that he has discovered how to produce stem cells that genetically match those of patients. Investigators are looking into this claim and his other work.
Our interview preceded the controversy, but it opens a window onto Hwang’s methods, motivation and relationships with his lab “family,” perhaps explaining, in part, recent events.
Q: Do your advances bring us closer to cloning humans?
A: I believe cloning humans would be very difficult and very unsafe.
Q: So why did you choose to pursue stem-cell research?
A: My father passed away when I was five years old, and our mother supported six children by raising cows. She said to me: “Please become a great scientist rather than a rich businessman.” Because I cared for cows when I was young, I decided to study them when I went to school. When I moved to a faculty position at Seoul National University in 1986, I made it my research goal to improve the reproductive efficiency of the elite animals that produced the highest quality and yield of milk and meat. I thought the best way to maintain this high yield was to clone them.
Q: President Bush has said he is worried about a world in which cloning becomes “acceptable.” What would you tell him about your work?
A: I have no comments on President Bush’s statements, but I hope stem-cell researchers can do their research more freely soon. I am just a scientist, and I want to concentrate on science.
Q: What makes your approach unique?
A: We transfer the whole somatic cell instead of just the nucleus, which makes the process more efficient; it allows us to obtain one stem-cell line from just 10 donated eggs. We’ve also devised special techniques, such as squeezing the recipient egg to remove its nucleus before inserting the somatic cell in order to minimize any damage to the cell. And we’ve developed unique cultures made up of only human cells to nourish the cloned cells. Since animal cells are not used, there is no contamination. And nonhuman cells may make it difficult for the cloned cells to grow.
Q: Your work style could almost be called tender.
A: I think all cells have a spirit; they know if someone is there. I ask my researchers to make sure one of them is always in the incubating room where the stem cells are kept. For this kind of work, you need to insert some human spirit; you cannot only use machines.
Q: Your day in the lab is a long one.
A: I wake up at 4 a.m., and I come to the lab by six to check the stem cells under the microscope. Until 11 a.m., my research team extracts eggs from cow and pig ovaries; then they go to their own projects. We have a meeting every afternoon to discuss our progress, and three times a week we have evening seminars with graduate students from the other schools at Seoul National University to discuss our work and theirs and to learn from each other. That lasts to 11 p.m. I usually go home around midnight.
Q: With all the team you and your research team spend together, are you a close-knit group?
A: They are like my children. Their generation has no time for dating, so half of them are lab couples. Once a week, we hike in the mountains; it’s good for everyone to get out of the lab.
Q: How did you succeed in cloning a dog when many others have failed?
A: The difficulty is in obtaining the eggs. We were able to determine the exact ovulation and embryo-transfer times. Our team was ready to collect oocytes at any time of day, even midnight or early morning. Our long hours and work style helped indeed.
Q: Many South Koreans think you should win a Nobel Prize.
A: My goal is not to win a Nobel Prize but to improve human dignity and well-being.