Dr. Clone: Creating Life or Trying to Save It? S. Korean Defends Ethics of His Controversial ResearchBy Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
SEOUL -- "Have you ever seen the origins of life?" asks Hwang Woo Suk, leader of a South Korean team of scientists credited with creating the world's first cloned human embryos. He slaps on a pair of surgical gloves with a whack. "They don't always smell very good," he says with a chuckle.
Hwang should know. After voluntarily suspending the South Korean human embryo project as he waits for international and domestic consensus on the ethics of his work, Hwang still has his hands full, going back to his roots -- in a pig sty.
He whirls around to where assistants have a six-foot-long sow, an anesthesia mask strapped over her snout, splayed out rather indelicately on her back, feet in the air, resting on a steel gurney in a pigpen steaming with methane. Ignoring the indignant grunts resonating from the lineup of other surrogate mothers still on all fours, he cuts open the belly of the pig, punching his gloved hand deep inside her until he pulls out her uterus.
Searching for the oviducts -- the tubes that transport eggs from the ovaries to the uterus -- he soon jabs them with a needle and yells, "Shoot!" An assistant with a strong stomach injects exactly 192 cloned pig embryos laced with human immune cells. In 116 days, at least five piglet clones -- Hwang calls them "our kids" -- should pop out. "They will be humanized pigs," he shouts over the din of porcine protests in this rented space at a pig farm 80 miles south of Seoul. His shoestring cloning project operates on a fraction of the budget typical in Western labs. "Their organs will be more suitable for human transplants," he says.
"Cloning," Hwang says, tucking the uterus back in, "should be used to improve the human condition."
"Okay, so I cloned a human embryo," he says, moving away from the pig. "Do you blame me? Who can blame me? I am not out to clone a human. I am trying to save human lives. If I were out for more," he said, gesturing with a bloody glove around the pungent sty, "do you think I'd be working in a place like this?"
Landmark PaperHwang is South Korea's Dr. Clone. Born into a family of poor rural farmers, the stocky 51-year-old workaholic was the first in his village of 50 residents to study beyond middle school, never looking back until he landed a full scholarship at Seoul National University and joined a short list of global scientists capable of sophisticated animal cloning. His first great success -- cloning a cow in 1999 on a relatively paltry half-million-dollar-a-year budget financed largely by national grants -- came just three years after scientists in Scotland cloned a sheep named Dolly.
On Feb. 12, Hwang and his team published a landmark paper in the online edition of the journal Science on their success in cloning human embryos. The paper described the creation of 30 embryos, which were kept alive in test tubes for five days. It turned the South Korean cloning expert with a wry sense of humor into one of the world's most talked-about scientists.
Some have demonized Hwang. One furious man in the United States sent him an e-mail "calling me Dr. Frankenstein," Hwang said. Others are scrambling to nominate Hwang, who founded the project two years ago, for a Nobel Prize.
But Hwang, like a host of other leading international scientists, views human embryo cloning as essential to improving cell regeneration therapy for chronically ill patients. And all he really wants to do, he says, is to get back to work.
"Of course we've thought about the ethical questions, and now I'm willing to hear what my government and others around the world have to say," he said. "But to me, there is really only one question: How can we stare at the possibility of saving millions of people, improving the lifestyles of millions more and choose not to act?"
Although the South Korean government has helped finance his animal cloning research, the human embryos were cloned without government funding or corporate sponsors.
"We did it with private funding from Koreans who simply believed in our mission and believed that Korean scientists could pull it off," he said. "This is not my triumph, it is all of Korea's."
In Desperate NeedA practicing Buddhist in a Confucian nation where organ donations are culturally taboo, the "moral issue" of cloning, he said, is different here. Parts of the human body are viewed in South Korea as the property of one's ancestors, making it presumptuous to offer them to someone else, even after death.
Such beliefs have left thousands of patients in desperate need of donor organs. Hwang believes hearts from the pigs he is cloning, which are genetically modified to minimize the risk of rejection after transplant surgery, can help solve such problems.
Many scientists believe the creation of "humanized" animal organs for transplantation is a long shot, though. They'd rather grow human tissues or organs from scratch. That's where cloned human embryos come in. The idea is to make embryos that are clones of patients suffering from spinal injuries, diabetes and other illnesses, take the precious stem cells from those embryos and grow tissues from the stem cells -- tissues that will be genetically identical to the patients' and so won't be rejected by their immune systems.
Hwang's passionate speeches at Korean universities and institutions on the medical uses of human embryo cloning persuaded 15 South Korean women and one Korean American woman to donate a total of 242 eggs for the project. "They were women who would come up after a speech, women who were moved by what they could do to advance science," he said. Hwang went to the hospital and held their hands during the egg removal. "I thanked each of them for their generosity, telling them again how much their effort meant for all the people with incurable diseases."
Hwang's detractors, however, deride him in harsh terms. He and his team have reignited the global debate over human cloning research. Is Hwang practicing science, they ask, or playing God?
"This poses a serious ethical problem to the world," said Kim Byoung Soo, coordinator of the Seoul-based Center for Democracy, Science & Technology. "We think his experiments undermine the dignity and sanctity of human beings. Medical purposes? No, we think it's just the groundwork for cloning humans. We don't think Professor Hwang is a responsible man."
Hwang's first line of defense is his argument that the embryos cloned by his team, which includes several South Korean Christians, do not qualify as human lives.
"That requires the egg from a woman and the sperm from a man," he said. "We used no sperm."
Nothing in Buddhist teachings raises precise ethical questions about the next step -- inserting that cloned embryo from a test tube into a women's womb to clone an infant. Yet Hwang vehemently vows not to take that step and says he would lobby against those who would. Not for religious reasons -- but on medical and philosophical grounds.
"The problems that can result from cloning -- subjects with enlarged organs or even missing brains -- are too great to even consider attempting to clone a human," he said. "And even if we could get around those problems, every human is and should be unique."
Raised on a FarmSouth Korea's favorite son of science was born on a farm 70 miles southwest of Seoul. His father died when Hwang was 5, leaving his mother to raise six children. Little Hwang had the peculiar habit of talking to cows. "They were my friends," Hwang recalls with a shrug.
Hwang traces his fascination with cloning to his childhood. He imagined how wonderful it would be if his poor family could somehow manufacture whole herds to solve their financial problems.
"He was obsessed with cows," said Cho Yong Yeon, 89, Hwang's mother, in a phone interview from the family farm. "There were times when he wouldn't come home for dinner because he was with those cows. Even during the nighttime, he would do his homework in the barn with the cows. In our village, electricity was rare and it could get quite dark. But he was never afraid to go out and see his cows."
Cows would become part of Hwang's destiny. After finishing high school, he won a full scholarship to Seoul National University. In a nation where the elite of business, medicine and technology are almost always educated in the United States or Europe, Hwang became a rarity -- a product of the Korean educational system. He launched his animal cloning project at the university in the 1990s. He has cloned dozens of cows -- including five that he says have been genetically altered to resist bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as mad cow disease. He cloned his first pig in 2002, proudly claiming more than a dozen since.
Human Embryo ResearchIn a white building on a bluff at Seoul National University, Hwang gave a journalist a tour of his animal cloning lab, where young assistants were extracting eggs from cow and pig ovaries collected that morning at a local slaughterhouse. The eggs are sorted and analyzed with microscopes, then shuffled into a darkened room with flat-screen monitors and fiber-optic lenses, used by Hwang's assistants to microscopically puncture the eggs and squeeze out their genetic material for use in cloning. His cloning procedure turns those hollow eggs into embryos, which are placed in separate incubators according to their species. In one incubator, Hwang is trying to clone the endangered Korean tiger.
Based on his successes, Hwang decided two years ago to move forward with the project on human embryo research. He recruited the team that wrote the Science magazine paper, including Shin Yong Moon and 13 other colleagues. They sought the financial backing of wealthy South Koreans, some of them personal acquaintances. Hwang refuses to name his backers, but insisted none are "for-profit investors."
"They are people who believe that South Korean scientists could do as much as Western scientists," he said. "Sometimes more."
Other members of the cloning team describe Hwang as the glue that bound the project together. "His leadership personality is what kept us all in the ring and going," said Lee Byeong Chun, a professor of veterinary medicine at Seoul National University and one of the core members of the human embryo cloning team. "I always admired his ability to encourage us and arouse responsibility in the team. After a hard working day, he'd be the one to give us pride of mission on our way home."
Sitting in his office at the university, with pictures of cloned cows on his wall and a cloned, stuffed miniature pig in a glass case on his shelf, Hwang said there were times when he found himself dwelling on the ethics of human embryo work. Those concerns were largely dispelled, he said, after an encounter with a couple at a Seoul hospital.
"They were newlyweds," he said. During their honeymoon on South Korea's scenic Mount Sorak, the husband had fallen, severely damaging his spine.
"He was badly in need of treatment which human embryo research could help provide," Hwang said. "His wife had only been with him one night, and she was now regularly doing his urine suction every day. She looked at me in tears. She needed an answer that science hadn't yet provided. It strengthened and moved me when I saw the tears in her eyes."
Nevertheless, Hwang and the other team members agreed to halt the human embryo project after the publication of their findings. Hwang says he wants the South Korean government to draft specific ethical guidelines on human embryo cloning. He and the other core members of the team have agreed not to transfer the cloning technology overseas without government permission.
He is also interested in hearing the international scientific community's opinions on his work before relaunching the project. "I wish people could understand the good in this, but I know that all of them won't," he said. "We'll listen to what they have to say, but I hope they will listen to us, too."
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley