Accessibility links

South Korean Stem Cell Pioneer's Ethical Woes Elicit Flood of Nationalistic Support

  • Kurt Achin

Last week's admission of ethical lapses by geneticist Hwang Woo-Sok has generated a backlash in his native South Korea - but not against Dr. Hwang himself. Instead, the public is showing its support for him, and criticizing television journalists who helped bring his ethical lapses to light. The Hwang drama seems to have touched a nationalistic nerve.

It had been a great year for Hwang Woo-sok. The pioneering stem cell researcher put South Korea in the world spotlight by becoming the first geneticist to clone human embryonic stem cells - highly versatile building blocks of the human body.

He tugged at South Korean heartstrings when he produced "Snuppy," the world's first cloned dog. And when he presided over the opening of the World Stem Cell Hub in Seoul last month, he once again put the nation at the forefront of global science.

Then came November.

On November 12, word came that his U.S. collaborator had severed ties with Dr. Hwang, saying he had been misled on ethical matters - although he said the work was sound. Ten days later, the South Korean television network MBC dropped another bomb.

An MBC documentary series painstakingly detailed alleged ethical irregularities committed in the course of Dr. Hwang's research.

Two days later, Dr. Hwang publicly admitted that ethical lapses had taken place. He had violated guidelines by accepting egg donations from two of his junior researchers, had paid for egg donations from 20 other women, and had covered it all up. On the edge of tears, he announced his resignation from all his official research positions.

But South Korean Internet portals began humming with thousands of messages of support for Dr. Hwang, many of them from South Korean women offering egg donations to push his research forward. An online community called "I love Hwang Woo-sok" doubled its number of members to nearly 34,000 just in the past few days.

Dr. Hwang's supporters are also attacking the MBC network for its handling of last week's program. In the face of boycott threats, most major advertisers have pulled their support for the documentary series.

Even South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun admitted in a posting on his official website Monday that he was "irritated" at the MBC reporting, saying the complaints were justified. However, he criticized the withdrawal of advertising as extreme, warning it was helping to create an atmosphere of "social fear."

More supporters, many of them in wheelchairs, gathered for a rally Saturday in Seoul. Dr. Hwang's advances have been hailed as significant steps toward stem-cell therapies for dozens of debilitating diseases.

Jeong Yeong-soon, who has a spinal cord injury, could one day benefit from Dr. Hwang's work, and she urges him not to give up.

Ms. Jeong says just because there are difficulties, Dr. Hwang and his team should not abandon their work, because it is a source of hope for so many people.

Even without Dr. Hwang in a leading role, South Korean stem cell research is likely to move forward. The authorities have cleared him of any criminal actions, and have signaled that generous financial support for the research will continue.

But for many South Koreans, Dr. Hwang has become a symbol of their country's scientific progress. One way or another, he seems sure to continue his work.

XS
SM
MD
LG