Media Frenzy Surrounds Korean Stem Cell Controversy
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
One of the world's leading stem cell scientists was hospitalized this week after questions were raised about the ethics and accuracy of his research. South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk has reportedly lost 20 pounds in the past four weeks and is described as exhausted. Hwang's fortunes are being tracked in the Korean media with the intensity usually reserved for world leaders or rock stars. NPR's Joe Palca explains why.
JOE PALCA reporting:
Last year, Hwang Woo-suk amazed the world when he reported that he had successfully derived a single embryonic stem cell line from a cloned human embryo. He followed that up this year with more groundbreaking research, deriving another 11 lines. There has been a steady stream of American scientists traveling to Seoul to see his lab and discuss collaborations. American bioethicist Insoo Hyun of Case Western Reserve University spent this past summer working with Hwang's team in Seoul. He saw Hwang's national popularity firsthand.
Dr. INSOO HYUN (Case Western Reserve University): When I arrived on June 1st, what was very striking to me was that every newsstand that I passed, every subway advertisement or magazine stand that I passed had his picture plastered all over the publications.
PALCA: Hyun thinks he understands the reason.
Dr. HYUN: Any person in Korean society who does--gains any kind of notoriety in a good way is immediately celebrated. So you can imagine the degree of admiration that Koreans have for Dr. Hwang.
PALCA: After his breakthrough research was published in the leading international science journals, everybody in South Korea rushed to heap accolades on Hwang. Korean Air offered him free, first-class travel. There was even a postage stamp honoring his research.
Hwang's problems began in mid-November when a US colleague accused him of ethical lapses. The charges dealt with how Hwang and his colleagues obtained eggs for their experiments. To make cloned embryos, you need a supply of human eggs. Although it wasn't illegal at the time, Hwang had insisted none of the women had been paid for their donations. He now admits they had, albeit without his direct knowledge. He also had to confess that two of his junior colleagues had donated their eggs. Taking a donation from a subordinate can be considered exploitative, although Hwang insists he counseled the women against donating.
And not all the problems were ethical. Just this week, Hwang was forced to admit that there were errors in some of the figures submitted with one of his landmark papers. The errors don't appear serious; just one more problem for Hwang to deal with.
For the South Korean media, Hwang's troubles are riveting. John Hirshcavitz is chief correspondent for Reuters in Seoul.
Mr. JOHN HIRSHCAVITZ (Reuters): They have online news services who are keeping people up to date minute by minute on developments. It's the front page of every newspaper, it's the top story on the news and this has been going on since November when the ethical lapse allegations first came to the surface.
PALCA: Now you might think that under the media glare, Hwang's luster might become tarnished. You might think that.
Ms. SOHN JIE-AE (Seoul Bureau Chief, CNN): Sentiments in South Korea are more sympathetic towards Hwang than ever before.
PALCA: Sohn Jie-ae is Seoul bureau chief for CNN.
Ms. SOHN: Right now I mean, we've seen over a thousand women signed up to donate eggs. So if nothing else, he has even more to work with when he comes back.
PALCA: Sohn believes there are a variety of reasons for Hwang's continued popularity. First, there are his humble origins.
Ms. SOHN: He's a homegrown, very much of a Korean-bred-and-made man who's made his mark overseas, internationally, and in an area where people see future potential. They see him as sort of as a model as to what Korea could be.
PALCA: Sohn says Hwang represents a Korea that is a world leader in an important area of science. Still, Sohn says Hwang makes an unlikely national hero.
Ms. SOHN: And I don't think it's ever happened in Korean history where a scientist has become so nationally popular. He communicates what he's doing and why it's important to the people, and so they really loved him a lot.
PALCA: At least for now there's no evidence that love is fading. Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.
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