South Korea a Fertile Field for Research Into Cloning

Times Staff Writer

The pig squeals with indignation as it is hoisted onto the operating table with a forklift.

A graduate student fits a mask over the sow’s snout and turns on the anesthesia until the animal’s heavy head flops into unconsciousness. The operation is ready to begin.

In a nondescript barn down a dirt road undistinguishable from any other in this farm town 60 miles south of Seoul, South Korean scientists clad in white suits like spacemen are doing groundbreaking work.


The same team from Seoul National University that last week announced it had produced cloned human embryos is hardly stopping to rest on its laurels. Over the next half an hour, its members will implant hundreds of cloned embryos into the oviducts of the pig in hopes that it will produce genetically modified piglets for research into organ donation.

The laboratories and farms of South Korea have become hotbeds for cloning research. The latest breakthrough, which was published in the respected journal Science, only sealed the country’s reputation for being at the forefront of the field.

American commentators have tended to credit the laissez-faire atmosphere in South Korea -- at least relative to the United States, where federal funding for research in the field has been restricted since 2001 under orders of President Bush.

“It’s true that we have fewer extremists in [South] Korea. There is religious opposition, but it is not so strong,” said Hwang Woo Suk, head of the university’s cloning project, in a telephone interview Monday from Seattle, where he had presented the study at a meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.

“But I don’t really think that the overall atmosphere is better in Korea than in the United States. There are pros and cons of working in both. Certainly, the facilities and funding in the United States are better.”

Nevertheless, the Seoul National University team managed a feat that had so far eluded U.S. researchers: The group produced cloned human blastocysts -- early-stage embryos -- that developed sufficiently for the scientists to extract stem cells, which are thought to be the key to developing treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Hwang, 50, credits the success of the university team to three factors: creativity, hard work and manual dexterity. Oddly enough, he says that the custom of using metal chopsticks -- as opposed to the wooden utensils of the Japanese and Chinese -- gives Koreans the perfect training for the excruciatingly delicate work of squeezing out the nucleus of microscopic human eggs and injecting new genetic material.

“Who else in the world but Koreans can pick up beans with metal chopsticks?” Hwang asked. “When I show American researchers videos of my graduate students working with the micro-manipulators, they are absolutely flabbergasted at their skill.”

South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun is said to be an enthusiastic supporter of cloning and stem-cell research. Hwang, according to several people in the field, had been on a short list last year of candidates to become the nation’s science and technology minister, but the idea was vetoed because of the potential controversy over his research.

Although opposition is not as strong as it is in the United States, Christian groups and environmentalists in South Korea have protested Hwang’s work. In an effort to ward off a fight, the scientific community crafted a bioethics bill that was signed into law Jan. 29. The measure makes it a criminal offense to try to produce a cloned human being -- a ban that was agreed to by Hwang and other scientists, who insist that their research is for therapeutic purposes only.

The law also requires that scientists, as of the start of next year, get prior approval for research projects from an ethics panel that will include scientists, government bureaucrats and members of religious groups.

“We’re getting to a point where I think Korea might be more restrictive about this kind of research than the United States,” said Kwak Sun Heon, an official with the Health Ministry who is in charge of bioethics.

Another provision of the new law tightens existing regulations against women selling their eggs, which probably will hinder human cloning research because of the large number of eggs required. For example, the experiment at Seoul National University required 242 eggs, all donated by volunteers.

“There’s a sense that there are dark clouds hanging over all of us in Korea in that there is not more freedom for research,” said Park Se Pil, an embryologist working at the Maria Infertility Hospital in Seoul.

Protests outside his lab two years ago forced Park to suspend an experiment that combined human DNA and cow eggs. Park says it was an attempt to produce embryonic stem cells that could be used for treating diseases, not an attempt to produce some cross-species monster.

Although the human embryo cloning has understandably received more publicity, most of the work done by South Koreans involves animals. Hwang last year announced that he had produced cloned cattle resistant to mad cow disease.

One of Hwang’s former students, Taeyoung Shin, performed the nuclear transfer procedures in 2001 at Texas A & M University that produced the world’s first cloned kitten -- named CC, short for either copycat or carbon copy.

The groundbreaking work with human eggs took place in a new laboratory at Seoul National University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where graduate students in sterile gowns work in hushed concentration with miniaturized pipettes and glass needles used for transferring genetic material between cells.

“We’ve conducted cloning experiments over a decade on cows, pigs, even cats. That experience helped us with human eggs, which are far more fragile,” said associate professor Lee Byeong Chun, a key member of Hwang’s team.

The day usually begins at 5:30 a.m. with a visit to one of the main wholesale markets in Seoul. The researchers have arranged for butchers to save the ovaries of freshly slaughtered cows and pigs. Back in the lab, they slice open the organs and extract the microscopic eggs.

With the best eggs, they prick a tiny hole and gently squeeze out the nucleus to remove most of the genetic material and replace it with the DNA of the animal to be cloned.

The cow eggs must then gestate for 24 hours, the pigs’ for 48 hours.

Three times a week, the researchers pile into a van with the embryos carefully packed in a portable incubator and drive two hours to the farm here in Hongseong so the early-stage embryos can be implanted.

Much of the work lately in South Korea, as elsewhere, has been with pigs, which are thought to have great potential as organ donors for humans. Current cloning work is aimed at producing pigs whose organs do not trigger a reaction from the recipient’s immune system. The researchers intend to experiment by implanting organs into dogs and other animals.

The team works from before dawn to as late as midnight, and Hwang and his associates like to boast about their workaholic tendencies. “No Saturday. No Sunday. No holidays. That’s my motto,” Hwang said.

Despite reports to the contrary, Hwang said his team receives no money for its human cloning research from the South Korean government, although the team is assisted for animal experiments. The scientists are dependent for human cloning on the generosity of a single private donor who, he said, does not wish to be identified.

While Hwang’s achievements have inspired considerable pride in South Korea, not everybody is pleased. One critic is Kim Hwan Seok, a sociology professor and activist in People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, one of the country’s most powerful civic associations.

“We think there is an ethical problem with artificially producing a human embryo for the purpose of experimentation,” said Kim, whose group was unhappy that the results were announced in the journal Science. “In Korea, scientists seem to be more concerned about being first in the international arena than worrying about ethics.”


Jinna Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.