a microneedle had squeezed out all the genetic material from a freshly harvested human egg. Now, in the shadows of a darkened laboratory, a technician in a blue jumpsuit prodded and probed the egg’s outer membrane, seeking to introduce a skin cell from a patient with an immune deficiency.
Finally, on the third probe, the rubbery wall gave way. Magnified 250 times on a black-and-white screen, the egg could be seen making room for the new skin cell, with its new genetic code. “I never destroy any life during my process,” said Dr Woo-Suk Hwang, the laboratory director, his eyes flashing above his surgical mask as he gave a reporter a rare look at the controversial human-cell transfer process developed at this small lab on the sixth floor of Building No. 85 at the Seoul National University.
To his supporters, Hwang’s report on May 20 that he had created new colonies of stem cells that matched the DNA of their donors was a major leap toward the dream of growing replacement tissues for conditions like spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes and congenital immune deficiencies.
This hope was captured in a postage stamp issued this year by South Korea. Next to an image of a green needle introducing a cell into a human egg, a series of silhouettes show a man rising from a wheelchair, walking, leaping and, finally, embracing a standing woman.
But to his detractors ' and there are many around the world and here in Korea ' Hwang is tampering with human life, pushing science down a slippery slope that will lead one day to the cloning of human babies.
In Rome, Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life of the Roman Catholic Church, told Vatican Radio that the research was comparable to cloning embryos, which he called a violation of human rights.
US President George W. Bush announced that he would veto any legislation that would allow public financing for research on stem cells created with newly harvested human eggs, saying, “I worry about a world in which cloning would be acceptable.”
Perspiring in the incubator laboratory, kept at a tropical 79 degrees, Hwang responded to these critics as he often has. “We use only a vacant egg, with no genetic materials,” he said, moving back and forth between English and Korean. Eggs are never fertilised, he said, arguing that embryos are never formed. Touching the core sensitivity, he added, “We have never attempted human cloning.”
Many scientists and ethicists disagree, saying that whatever the intent of the Korean research, the entities it produces are embryos and the process is human cloning. Still, the choice is simple to Hwang, 52, a veterinarian by training, who has debated the ethics of his research since he started working on cloning pigs and cows a decade ago.
“On one hand, you have 15 micrometers of skin cells, on the other a patient who has suffered from an incurable disease,” he said. “Maybe this 15 micrometers of skin cell can relieve and save the life of a human being next to me, someone who has suffered for 50 years or must suffer for 50 years. Of the two, which do you think is ethically reasonable to save'”
| Big leap: Woo-Suk Hwang extracting embryo at his lab in Seoul
The choice is clear to the South Korean authorities, who recently approved a 50 per cent increase in the $2 million budget for his biomedical research unit, which has 45 researchers and technicians and has largely been dedicated to animal research. The government also announced that construction would start next year on a six-storey $25 million building here, reserved for Hwang’s research. And the government has agreed to open an international stem cell bank by the end of this year.
The choice is also clear to the American, British, Japanese, Swedish and Spanish researchers who are hurrying to this verdant hilly campus in southern Seoul. The latest roll call of American institutions that are seeking collaborations with Hwang include Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Deeply immersed in their research, the Koreans often work seven days a week, sometimes spending nights at the laboratory. Hwang gave an interview in an office where a wash basin held a toothbrush and a full toiletry kit. With his laboratory handling 1,400 eggs a day from cows and pigs, he has already produced five genetically modified cows in the hope that they will be resistant to mad cow disease.
Now, he said, he wants to speed up practical applications of his human stem cell research. This year, he hopes to use animal stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries in rats, dogs and, possibly, monkeys. If the animal trials go well, he hopes to apply for permission in South Korea and the US to start conducting human trials in two to three years.
“I hope we can apply these wonderful technologies, not only for my generation, but also for my mother’s generation,” Hwang said.
Hwang’s mother, widowed when her son was five, supported her six children by helping neighbours care for their cows. (She is 89 now.) On the wall of his office is an old black-and-white photograph of Hwang as a boy with cows. “I could communicate to cows eye to eye,” Hwang, the father of two sons, said. “I want my laboratory to communicate with cells heart to heart.” Of the human material cultivated with the new genetic codes, he said: “If there are no humans beside the incubators, they may feel very lonely. So I discussed with my members. We decided that someone has to be beside the incubators and talking to the cells.”
In the laboratory, the technician peered intently into her micromanipulator, racing against time to insert one round skin cell into each of seven human eggs that the laboratory had received that day from a fertility clinic. Stripped of their genetic protein, eggs die after two hours.
Hwang called the work “holy, pure and genuine in trying to develop therapeutic technology to cure hard-to-treat diseases.” He disclaimed any personal financial interest in the research, noting that the patents would be going to the South Korean government. “I want to be remembered in history as a pure scientist,” he said. “I want this technology applied to the whole of mankind.” (NYTNS)