Seoul, Oct. 18, 2011 -- Just seven years ago, South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk was a world celebrity. International news headlines called him "a pioneer," "doctor clone," "a hero"' of stem cell research. Now he still makes news headlines when he announces his scientific findings, but with an added adjective like "disgraced" and verbs like "claims."
In an ongoing project to clone the world's endangered wild animals, Hwang's team announced this week the world's first cloned coyote. "Disgraced cloning scientist comes back with cloned coyotes," read Dong-A Ilbo, Korea's daily newspaper.
It has been a hard, rocky comeback for Hwang after a truly "disgraceful" fall. He still has a long way to go to win back the confidence of the world that poured so much hope in his work.
Hwang steadily rose to fame from 1999 to 2004, announcing a series of successful clones of dairy cows and pigs. His celebrity status was cemented in 2004 and 2005, when his team published articles in Science, reporting that they had created a human embryonic stem cell. It was a historic breakthrough , implying patients could seek custom-made treatments for illnesses without worrying about immune reactions. Hwang was named by Time magazine as one of its "People Who Mattered 2004" for proving that human cloning "is no longer science fiction, but a fact of life."
But that research was found to have been faked. One of his researchers fabricated the data. It became the scientific scandal of 2005, with scientists around the world asking whether Hwang himself, as head of the operation, knew or not of the falsified data.
After a tearful press conference at which he apologized "for using erroneous data in the papers" he submitted to Science, Hwang had to face legal charges of embezzlement and bioethics law violations in South Korea. Colleagues and collaborators who once revered him as a great leader pointed fingers in a blame game.
After that fall, Hwang kept a low profile and was reported to have suffered from depression. But he continued to seek funding from organizations willing to give him a second chance -- in Europe, the United States, Africa, and Southeast Asia -- and eventually built a new research team focusing mainly on animal cloning. A dozen successful projects include cloning a dead pet dog named Missy for an American businessman in 2007 and the famous 9/11 rescue dog Trakr, who pulled the last survivor out of the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Hwang is now back and settled in South Korea, heading the Sooam Bioengineering Research Institute with strong financial support from the Gyeonggi provincial government. On top of the cloned coyotes unveiled this week, he is working on lycaons, African wild hunting dogs categorized by International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) as a red-list threatened species. As of 2008, there were only 3,000 to 5,500 lycaons remaining in Africa.
Hwang admits that attempts to clone sheep and a goat have proven unsuccessful, but if he breaks through with the lycaon, he says the next cloning goal would be an extinct mammoth -- using the womb of an elephant, its closest living relative, as a place for a cloned embryo to grow.
But his financial supporter, Gov. Kim Moon-Soo Gyeonggi Province, says he has a much grander dream beyond a baby mammoth: "Our original dream is cloning dinosaurs. It may be difficult now ... but we believe we will shake the world once again by creating a live Jurassic Park that would be incomparable to Spielberg's imaginative Jurassic Park."