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The Hwang Saga Continues: A Genetic Crossroads Exclusive

by Pete ShanksGenetic Crossroads
May 12th, 2006

Seoul National University

The downfall of South Korean cloning researcher Hwang Woo-Suk, formerly his country's "supreme scientist," continues to play out. Prosecutors have announced that Hwang and his associate Kim Sun-jong will be indicted on charges related to the unethical and illegal procurement of women's eggs. They are still considering criminal charges related to the scientific fraud itself and to embezzlement of government funds. Seoul National University (SNU) has announced that the buildings intended for the ill-fated World Stem Cell Hub, created by Hwang last fall, will now be used for a gene-therapy center focusing on work with adult stem cells.

CGS associate Pete Shanks visited Seoul in April to investigate the scandal further:

Seoul, the capital of South Korea is a huge, modern, vibrant megalopolis. "I didn't like California so much," commented one Korean activist, "Too slow. New York, that's more my speed."

South Korea as a whole is one of the most rapidly urbanizing countries on the planet - more than 80% urban, up from 57% 25 years ago. It has the 9th largest economy in the world, just ahead of India and behind China, each of which has more than 20 times the population. Growth has slowed somewhat, but over the last 30 years has averaged over 6% a year, according to the United Nations Human Development Report (UNHDR). That's faster than any substantial economy except China, which started from a far lower base - faster than Singapore, Hong Kong or Ireland, and three times the U.S. rate.

Over that period, life expectancy has risen by 15 years (Korean women now live slightly longer than Americans, men slightly less), income is up to $18,000 per capita (28th in the world), and Koreans have become early adopters of technology. South Korea is often said to have more broadband access than any other country, and plans to offer wireless access - WiFi - to the entire country in the very near future. Its cell-phone industry expects to top 40 million subscribers this year - in a population of 48 million.

The milieu of breakneck, and largely successful, technological development is often cited as been one of the root causes of the stem-cell fiasco: load, fire, aim. Even scientists involved in the research admit that it went too fast: "Dr. Hwang's work had never been done before," points out Dr. Chang-kyu Lee, an animal cloning expert who was named as a co-author of the discredited 2005 Science paper, though he took no direct role in the human work. "So, we were ahead of the regulations."

Lee is being either naive or a little disingenuous, because Korean civil society was quite vocal about the dangerous possibilities of genetic technology several years earlier. A formal Institutional Review Board system went into operation in 1995, mostly to cover clinical trials of pharmaceuticals. The Korean Bioethics Association issued a firm statement of concern about cloning in 1999, and called for formal government regulation; in response to the 2004 publication that brought Hwang global fame, it immediately complained, in a letter to Science, that the research should have been subject to more review, especially in light of the "Bioethics and Biosafety Act" that had recently been passed but had not yet gone into effect.

Even earlier, in 1997, the announcement of the birth of Dolly the sheep inspired a wave of civil society concern about biotechnology. Among those urging caution were environmentalists, feminists, and trade unionists, as well as significant parts of the religious community, according to Jae-kak Han, who was cheerfully described by a friend of his at the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM) as "Dr. Hwang's worst enemy." Han is now a researcher with the Democratic Labor Party, was formerly with People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), and has been a specialist on Hwang's activities for almost a decade.

In 1999, as Hwang was enjoying his first local fame for cloning a cow, an achievement that was never properly documented and has been disputed, Han raised concerns about Hwang's efforts to use cow eggs and human somatic cells to generate a human embryo.

In 2000-2002, publicly expressed concerns about the new genetic technologies included:

The integrity of the genome and ecosystem

Women's rights to health, and concerns about egg procurement

The implications for experimental subjects

The lack of any assessment of social impacts

Different groups naturally focused on different aspects of the issue, but there was a substantial oppositional coalition. Mr. Han estimates that public opinion in general was then split about 60/40, in favor of the research.

For a while in 2005, it became quite impossible to express criticism. That space, however, is opening up again, and on all of the formerly active fronts. Korean Womenlink, an organization of 15,000 members, has taken the lead with the Korea Women's Association United (KWAU) coalition in suing on behalf of women who have fallen ill after supplying eggs.

The National Bioethics Committee, according to Professor Hwan-suk Kim, one of its 21 members, has agreed in principle to tighten the Bioethics law, though not yet on the precise wording. (The membership is divided in thirds: 7 government ministers, 7 scientists, and 7 representatives of civil society, including but not limited to bioethicists.) Professor Kim also heads the Center for Democracy in Science and Technology, which developed out of the PSPD, and has provoked from Dr. Byung-sang Park of the Inchon Ecology Lab the friendly criticism that "his point is democratic control of this technology; my point is the problem of the technology itself." Park, an evolutionary biologist, asserts that specialists in his field are largely opposed to research cloning, but notes that there is considerable economic pressure in favor of the technology.

The claim that Hwang's research is vital for the economic future of the nation has become the mantra of the "Hwang-ppa" or "Hwang fans." This is something of a change in emphasis: They used to focus on promises of cures. Nowadays, however, as a journalist said, "we are all experts on stem cells," and Hwang's supporters are as likely as anyone to suggest that cures are a long way off.

The fans are an anarchic lot. They communicate via websites and chat rooms, and support each other's candle-lit vigils and other efforts. In April, Yong-jin Jang fasted in front of the KBC TV studio to protest its refusal to broadcast a program with opinions favorable to Hwang. Jang accepts that Hwang had made mistakes ("70% good, 30% bad"), but thinks he should be allowed to keep his team together and replicate his results so that Korea can take the lead in cloning before the Japanese or Chinese occupy that niche. He was on the 9th day of a liquids-only hunger strike when I spoke with him, and reckoned he could keep it up for a month.

The fans' emphasis on economic justifications for Hwang's work is in direct accord with government policy:

"As for the development of the biotechnology sector, the government will establish a four-year basic plan to improve domestic biotechnology to the world's seventh-best level by 2010, according to the ministry." [Korea Herald (April 21, 2006), no longer online]

R&D funds overall are set to increase by 23.7% this year, and both "regenerative medical science technology" and "tailored medicine technology" are specified among the targets. No one seems able to articulate effectively the concern that this may not be a wise investment.

The other key point for Hwang's fans is their demand to "protect the patents," which they generally aim at Gerald Schatten, the University of Pittsburgh scientist who collaborated closely with Hwang. Schatten is said to be stealing the cloning technology developed in Hwang's lab; some bystanders hinted at a Jewish-American conspiracy.

One significant difference between the political environments of South Korea and the US is that abortion is not a primary topic in Korea. Abortion is illegal, explained KWAU policy director Seon-mi Kim Ki, but fairly widely practiced and not the main focus of feminists - certainly not as important as increasing women's participation in the political process. KWAU's main goal in the last national elections was to double the proportion of women in Parliament, and they succeeded; but that only brought the numbers up to 13%. University education has spread to women, but the glass ceiling is very much in effect.

The relatively low priority of abortion politically may be connected with the deep substrate of shamanistic thought that runs through the society, along with Confucian and Buddhist tendencies. Confucian thinking in particular places very little value on the developing embryo and fetus, focusing instead on hierarchical relationships among the living. Indeed, Korea has been called the last Confucian nation, even though Christianity has become the leading single religion - "My family is Christian," explained one prominent bioethicist, "But that's only been a hundred years."

Korean Buddhist groups are starting to raise funds for Hwang to continue his cloning research, and claim to have secured pledges of $65 million from three donors.

They are hampered by uncertainty about prosecution's case, and Professor Hwan-suk Kim suggests that any Buddhist-funded work would have to be conducted in a new and independent facility, since no reputable university would host it. Civil society may yet be able to set some kind of limits.

Pete Shanks, a writer and grassroots political activist who lives in Santa Cruz, is the author ofHuman Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed(Nation Books, 2005).


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