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[Opinion] One Year After Hwang

Posted November. 15, 2006 03:02,   


When Dr. Gerald Schatten at the University of Pittsburgh made the sudden announcement on November 15 last year that he was breaking off his collaboration with Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, professor at Seoul National University (SNU), no one had any idea that the stem cell research by Dr. Hwang, then a scientist beloved by the whole nation, would end up as the most notorious fraud case in recent medical science history.

The high-profile incidents that ensued, including Hwang’s resignation from all public posts and the suspicions that MBC’s program, PD Soo-Cheop (PD Notebook), raised on “egg-selling” and “stem cell manipulation” were the hottest topics around dinner tables at year-end parties in 2005. The country was divided along pro- or anti-Hwang lines, while the truth remains “out there,” as the slogan for the X-Files goes.

The stem cell controversy called up debates on patents, national interests, and even news reporting ethics, plunging the nation into wild confusion. Like the theory of Butterfly Effect, which says the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in Beijing can change the patterns of a hurricane in New York, the repercussions from the Hwang scandal seemed never-ending. The entire nation shuddered, feeling hollow and betrayed, when the SNU Investigation Committee declared that there was “no stem cell.” The aftermath of the collective passion was deep and serious: one man even set fire to his own body.

All that is already a year ago. As some say, in losing a hero, Korea gained the scientific power of its people, and the whole stem cell uproar has triggered a sober reflection on the fundamentals of our society. Scientists have begun to clean up their act, as their past practices of plagiarism and copying other researchers’ papers came under heavy fire. The importance of ethics in life science was newly underlined as many of the details of the egg collection process were discovered to be lies, and the society came to accept the harsh reality that stem cells are not a panacea for the treatment of intractable diseases.

While stem cell research in Korea remains mostly stalled, many developed countries are rapidly catching up. The most prominent in the race is the United Kingdom, which produced “Dolly,” the first cloned sheep in the world. Research in the UK has already reached the level of restoring eyesight of blind mice using stem cells, treating myocardial infarction, or producing artificial livers. The victory of the Democrats in the U.S. midterm elections is also predicted to open the gateway in stem cell R&D in the country. Korea cannot simply stand by and watch others rushing ahead in the competition. There are just too many people who would have to give up all hope, if we do not pick up the pieces and go on to provide to them what Dr. Hwang promised but did not deliver.

Editorial Writer Chung Seong-hee, shchung@donga.com