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Disgraced stem cell pioneer seen as hero
Latest Updated by 2005-12-02 11:01:50
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SOUTH KOREANS have rallied around cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk after he admitted ethical lapses, with hundreds of women volunteering to donate eggs for research and supporters threatening a Korean TV news magazine show reporting on the case.

The World Stem Cell Hub, the research center that Hwang led before resigning, said Tuesday it hoped he would return, even though his ethical lapses could hurt its efforts to work with other research institutions abroad.

Hwang, who achieved international renown for his breakthroughs in stem cell research and cloning, has not been in his office since apologizing publicly last week for accepting egg donations from two junior scientists in his lab. He had denied those allegations for more than a year.

Under generally accepted international guidelines, scientists are warned to be cautious in allowing subordinates to be subjects for research because of concerns about possible coercion.

Still, the ethics controversy has generated huge public support for Hwang in South Korea, where he is viewed as a national hero. A growing number of volunteers are offering eggs.

"So far more than 700 South Korean women have volunteered to donate their eggs and the number is steadily rising," said Lee Sun-min, an official at a private foundation launched last week to promote egg donations.

Kwang, a professor in the department of heriogenology and biotechnology at the Seoul National University, is considered by many to be the world's leading scientist in the field of stem cell research.

Hwang is the leader of the research team at Seoul National University that produced the first cloned human embryos in 2004. The success was followed by Hwang's establishment of 11 different stem cell lines from embryos cloned using cells from specific patients earlier this year. The team also succeeded in creating the first cloned dog in August this year.

Hwang was honored with the "Indispensable Person in Health Care" award by the Alliance for Aging Research, a Washington D.C.-based biomedical research lobbying group, at its annual gala dinner Aug. 18 this year.

In accepting the award, Hwang said that his research could ameliorate the health problems that accompany aging, such as failing memories, muscle wasting, cancers, and immune system declines. With stem cell therapies "these might become conditions of the past," said Hwang.

Hwang noted that with cloned stem cells "we would be treating our bodies with our own perfectly matched cells," thus avoiding the problem of immune rejection that bedevils conventional organ and tissue transplants.

The TV station that reported on the controversy has attracted public anger, causing South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to express concern about a climate of intolerance in his country.

MBC television said last week it obtained documents from Hwang's lab showing possibly hundreds of human eggs had been bought for research. The egg buying was not illegal at the time but Hwang previously insisted that all eggs for his work were donated by women eager to see the work proceed.

Some of his supporters threatened on online message boards to kill family members of producers of the program, and 11 firms pulled advertising from the news magazine show.

"I am concerned about our society, which doesn't know tolerance," Roh wrote Sunday in a message posted on his official Web site. "Protest messages and phone calls can be made ... but canceling advertising showed things went too far and a social climate that does not tolerate criticism has been created."

Hwang announced his resignation last week from the World Stem Cell Hub, which was started last month in Seoul to seek treatments for incurable diseases. Thousands of patients have applied to participate in the research, hoping for treatments for damaged spinal cords and diseases such as Parkinson's.

On Tuesday, an official at the lab, Seong Myong-hoon said "We're waiting for Hwang to resume the leadership after some rest."

But Seong said the controversy could hurt the lab. He reached this conclusion after one of Hwang's close research partners, Ahn Cu-rie, returned Tuesday from a 10-day trip to meet with scientists in the United States and Japan.

"The reaction of foreign scientists was that they understand what Dr. Hwang did, but they cannot accept that without criticism," Seong said. "We cannot be optimistic about cooperation with foreign institutions."

Seong added: "Researchers in our country were newly awakened to the fact that we have to take every precaution to ensure we don't fall behind international ethics (guidelines) while researching."

Editor: Wing

By: Source: Szdaily web edition
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