What's next for Korea's stem-cell research?
A report concludes cloning results were faked, but says scandal could strengthen research in long term.
SEOUL — Exposure of one of history's greatest medical hoaxes may, in the end, be what Korea needs to emerge as a scientific power.
A month-long investigation suggested just that in a report released Tuesday, which saw the scandal as a "stepping stone for better execution and scientific research" that could even "contribute to scientific advancement in this country." Moreover, it added, "The young scientists who courageously pointed out the fallacy and precipitated the initiation of this investigation are our hope for the future."
Around the campus of Seoul National University (SNU), home to now discredited stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo-Suk, professors and researchers share that philosophical approach. The episode, many say, may mark a turning point in Korea's drive for global recognition as more than just a commercial or economic success.
"This scandal taught us really a lot," says Kim Sun Young, a molecular biologist with degrees from Oxford, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We basically paid a $50 million price for the lesson," he says in sardonic reference to the total advanced by the government to finance Mr. Hwang's laboratory.
Hwang's team published its initial paper in the journal Science in 2004, claiming to have cloned the first human stem cell. They published their second seemingly breakthrough paper last year claiming to have cloned 11 human stem-cell lines.
It was after the investigation, spurred by dissident scientists in Hwang's lab, that another SNU team led by medical professor Chung Myung Hee published its "final report" denouncing both papers as "fabricated."
Possibly the only consolation is that the report, largely written by Dr. Chung, acknowledges that an Afghan hound Snuppy, short for Seoul National University Puppy, was indeed a "cell clone" of its mother, as Hwang claimed last year in the journal Nature.
Mr. Kim, who does research in gene therapy and has founded the university's first venture company, ViroMed, worries that the government "may slow down on research in general."
The government's first response after the final report was to pull out of a global stem-cell project set up at Seoul National University Hospital for research on individual patients. Beside abandoning a plan to provide more than $11 million for the project, the health and welfare ministry says it will look more closely into subsidies for any research - and will call for revising the law on bioethics.
In the end, Kim sees tight ethics control as ensuring a revival in government support.
The university "should and will set up an office of scientific integrity," says Kim. "Probably all institutions will set up such offices." The result, he believes, "will upgrade the infrastructure and will have real scientific impact."
Analysts agree the level of scientific research in Korea may well improve as a result of the experience with Hwang, though the pall of national and academic humiliation may be difficult to overcome.
"They're trying to keep a stiff upper lip," says David Cyranoski, the Tokyo-based staff correspondent for Nature. "It's been a horrible day for [the university.]" But, he adds, "because this process has been so painful, it may stick more."
Mr. Cyranoski believes one dividend may be "a willingness to question authority" - seen as sorely needed to elevate research here. "They have a lot of really good scientists," he says, "but the level's not high because they focus on manufacturing."
In a coffee shop near the veterinary school where Hwang ran his laboratory, professors talk anonymously about obstacles confronting research and development here.
"One problem is a strict policy on supporting research," says a business school professor. "If the research does not produce results in a certain period, the funds are withdrawn."
That fear may have driven Hwang to want to show ever greater results - even though he knew they were false, some say. "Most of the research is very honest," says another professor, "but funding agents put a lot of pressure on researchers."
Kim denies, though, that the pressure is such that it would spur a brain drain of promising young scientists. Although most want to do graduate work abroad, "all want to come back to Korea," he says. The drawback, he adds, is "we don't have enough positions" for all of them.
Kim says, moreover, that training abroad tends to elevate ethics. In his own faculty, he says, 90 percent of the faculty have studied in the United States and "have the US standard of integrity."
Hwang's veterinary college, says Kim, is "more traditional, more conservative, and more hierarchical," all factors that gave him the power to run his lab free of restraints from peers or subordinates - and to persuade women working in the lab to serve as donors, in violation of ethics regarding stem-cell research.
Kim does not believe, however, that professors and laboratory chiefs abuse their authority that easily.
"We may be more conservative in this country, reflecting our culture," he says, "but we're changing a lot these days" - at a pace that's likely to quicken as prosecutors question how Hwang got so much government funding and won such acclaim before younger colleagues blew the whistle.