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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2005

Trying to stem controversy in South Korea

LOS ANGELES -- The people of South Korea have responded to the stem-cell scandal involving genius-innovator Hwang Woo Suk with admittedly excessive passion and near-unanimous conviction. Still, by rallying around their amazing Seoul National University pioneer, their support should be a comfort to risk-taking scientists all over the world.

Safe science is not always the best science. This is especially the case with technically tricky and sometimes ethically complex work, such as stem-cell research. It's true that at the end of the day the benefits of the research may prove disappointing. But you don't know until you find out. Hwang is obviously for trying to find out: No guts, no paradigm shift, no glory.

This South Korean veterinarian astonished the world in 2004 when his Seoul laboratory produced the first cloned embryonic stem cells from adult human patients. Hwang and his team at Seoul National University led a global pack of scientists in search of ways of approaching crushing human diseases such as Parkinson's. Time magazine took note of Hwang's cloning of the world's first dog, "Snuppy," by naming it invention of the year.

But at the same time questions were being whispered throughout the global scientific world as to how readily and rapidly the lab had managed to come into possession of the many fresh human eggs needed for the experiment. Eventually, the mounting suspicion crashed into scandal: A South Korean news program, in a documentary, provided evidence that two female junior staffers had been clandestine donors of a large number of (generally hard to find) fresh eggs to fuel his work. The story made headlines around the world: The professor had to admit to having crossed an ethical line and stepped down as head of the World Stem Cell Hub in Seoul.

Even so, the pioneer's South Korean countrymen are standing behind him. What's notable is that such a high level of public support for stem-cell science occurs in a society drenched in religious values -- as is America, where, by contrast, this research has been plagued by political opposition from the right. But South Koreans appear to accept that serious -- and sometimes risk-taking -- science has a solid track record of defeating or ameliorating terrible diseases from the simplest infection to the complexities of polio or AIDS.

What's more, South Koreans are driven by the norms of patriarchy in ways that we in the West do not. Were these two junior female researchers truly coerced into donating their eggs, or were they simply dedicated and high-minded junior scientists who wished to help to their pioneering professor to the extent they could?

And finally, there's the issue of national pride. To have in their midst a scientist of the stature of the path-finding Hwang is more important to South Korea than outsiders might imagine. Until relatively recently, South Korea has been a sort of lost country, in the shadow of the (former) Soviet Union, China and Japan. But since the late '80s, South Koreans have been clawing their way to the top tier of world economies, astonishing everyone with their penchant for innovation, democracy and solid diplomacy.

However, South Koreans need to balance their emotional support for Hwang with more respect for the role of the news media. The TV program and network in South Korea that broke the Hwang story with an hourlong documentary about the suspicious source of the egg donations have been demonstrated against and denounced. This blame-the-messenger public fury is unfortunate. The president of South Korea, Roh Moo Hyun, has rightly come to the new program's defense. Moreover, while announcing its continuing support for Hwang's work, the South Korea's political establishment has wisely created a new ethics committee to shed light on the many penumbrae of biotechnology.

At the same time, this scandal does provide South Korea's news media with an opportunity to examine itself. The trickiest of ethical dilemmas requires a sensitive balance of reason and judgment to assess. Sometimes these issues are too complex to be handled in the raucous news media, which perforce must simplify and over-dramatize in order to communicate to the masses. The controversy about pioneer Hwang may go down in history as just such a classic case for journalists as well as scientists.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy

Copyright 2005 Tom Plate

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