Dr. Hwang Woo-suk: the ‘Stem Cell’ Man

Published: June 3, 2004  |  Source: times.hankooki.com
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If I were a woman, I would definitely donate my eggs to scientific research without hesitation,’’ said Hwang Woo-suk, who has been the talk of the science field for months now for his therapeutic cloning to cure incurable diseases.

Hwang is a professor of veterinary medicine at Seoul National University. Born in 1953 in Puyo, South Chungchong Province, he graduated from Taejon High School and entered Seoul National University. Entering a university in Seoul at that time was quite a task for a country boy like Hwang. He received his Ph.D. and then did some research at Hokkaido University in Japan.

Hwang lost his father at age 5 and growing up without a father figure was very difficult for him. He knew he had to study to succeed in Korea so he got a job at a farm at a young age to pay for his school expenses.

Attending to cows, he was able to sense what the cows needed simply by looking at their eyes. That’s how he started working with animals, which has led to his study of stem cells. Many may wonder what exactly a stem cell is. It is a cell that actually stems out, and simply put, it is like giving cues to an actor during a play.

In more scientific terms, it is a cell that hasn’t taken an identity of the body, so that it can play a role in the brain, skin, or bones. The stem cell can renew itself to a certain point and it will become a specialized cell. The cells are present from the embryo stage to adulthood and the numbers will decrease and the versatility will lessen as we age.

What is all the fuss with his scientific breakthrough? It involves the issues of political, scientific, and ethical problems and the questions that many have within the research field.

The first question involves how to distinguish the embryonic cell from an adult cell. The second question involves the source of the cells _ whether it will be drawn from fetal tissue, human embryos or cells from an adult. As the number of cells decrease with age, there is an ethical issue of extracting the cells from female eggs.

One on One with Dr. Hwang Woo-suk

Q: Why are people in the medical field so excited about stem cells?

A: Stem cells can improve health and medical research in many ways.

Q: What do you want to do specifically with stem cells?

A: Stem cells replace old or dead cells and tissues to treat many diseases and physical conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, burns, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, Huntington’s Disease (occurring in the brain) and even arthritis. I would really like to help treat these kinds of diseases or illnesses, not for the purpose of human cloning. Actually I am against human cloning, myself.

Q: Because this research has become an International issue, what kinds of cultural issues have you dealt with, if any, in your research?

A: To start off, in America females can sell their eggs (where the stem cells can be derived from). In Korea, they don’t sell their eggs. It’s not a law, but ethically women just wouldn’t trade off their eggs or any reproductive organs for that matter. Women in Korea would not sell or trade their eggs, but would donate them to science for the purposes of finding a way to cure incurable diseases. They wouldn’t do it for a spot in the limelight, but rather give quietly and be very humble about it. The women who usually donate already have kids and have discussed it with their husbands. They just want to do something helpful for their country.

Q: Do you think they would donate simply to help out a sick person in the family?

A: No, not necessarily. That sounds selfish, but in reality they donate for the reasons of religion. For example, in Buddhism, Buddhists would donate to help patients cure their illness. In some parts of the world this is not understood because of cultural differences. In America, they can sell each egg for almost as much as $4,000. People have to understand that there are cultural differences. The laws and cultures in Europe are different from Korea too. You just can’t go on comparing the same issue while living in different countries and dealing with completely different cultures. One has to understand the culture of the country to see how they handle the ethical issue differently.

Q: Did you have a lot of female volunteers here in Korea?

A: There is a waiting list here in Korea and females from all over the world have been e-mailing me, even from Norway, just to donate their eggs to science. I cannot reveal their identities because there is a privacy act here in Korea.

Q: Can their names be revealed after the research is over?

A: No, the names are still under the wraps. So you can understand that the females here are not volunteering to get in the spotlight or seek fame or fortune. They are solely doing it for purposes of donating their eggs to science and help the research.

Q: How do you think others are seeing your research?

A: I think it is all how we look at things. For example if we see a couple in love, we may say, ‘Oh, what they have between them is true romance.’ Looking at it on a different note, without having any knowledge or background information about the couple, we can say ‘they must be having an affair’. People can see the same thing differently; everyone is allowed to have their own opinions. Even in America, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger views therapeutic cloning positively and wants to improve the research on stem cells for the next 10 years.

Q: How do you feel about U.S. President Bush not wanting to approve this kind of research?

A: As I said, everyone has the right to their opinion, and some don’t really side with Bush’s issues as well. Harvard University disagrees with Bush’s opinion on that matter. The New Mexico governor agrees with therapeutic cloning along with Dustin Hoffman, Reagan, and many others. Everyone has their own opinions and is allowed to have them. But, I don’t think that any person should speculate wildly as one magazine in England did. I think there has been a lack of research on cultural differences.

Q: Do you like to take any time off from work or research?

A: I really enjoy my work, but I don’t take many vacations. What I usually do is relax and do some kind of yoga practice around 4:30 every morning as I have been doing for over 19 years. This has relaxed me and has been my vacation so far.

Q: Tell us one good point about Korea.

A: The people in Korea are very diligent and are truly loyal to their work and company or institutions. There are people here who work on Saturdays, Sundays and even through holidays and they do it on their own without asking for any extra pay. Korean people are very strong and are very much dedicated to the country.

Q: Would you tell us one bad point about Korea?

A: Well, I hope we can have more facilities and more resources for research. We really lack in those areas compared to other countries. For example, in America they have monkeys for researchers and here in Korea we don’t have any. So, I am going to go to America to see how to get monkeys for research here in Korea if we can.

Q: Can you tell us about your family?

A: My wife is a great cook, but I feel very bad that I can’t spend much time with her because of my love for my work. You know I work everyday. I have two great sons, aged 23 and 25, both studying on opposite sides of America _ one in New York and the other in Los Angeles. One is studying music and the other hotel management.

Q: Who is your hero?

A: I have many heroes, but I think my main hero is Galileo, the man who introduced the idea that the planets and Earth orbited the sun, and he was the first one to prove this idea. He had many difficulties in proving this fact to the church. It was really hard to prove since back then the only equipment really available was the telescope, and that wasn’t even developed all that well.

Q: If you were a woman would you donate your eggs for research?

A: Absolutely!

By Dorothy Nam