?I am just one scientist?

By Matt Donnelly, Science & Theology News, July 19, 2005

Woo-Suk Hwang has pioneered human somatic cell nuclear transfer, and that?s where his troubles begin. He is recognized the world over for his work in human somatic cell nuclear transfer, commonly known as embryonic stem cell research. In an e-mail interview, Hwang, who is a practicing Buddhist, told Science & Theology News web editor Matt Donnelly about his work, how it has been misunderstood and why he sees himself as ?just one scientist.?

<< DNA of controversy: Is human cloning in the offing? (Photo: NASA)

How does your work build upon the contributions of those such as Darwin, Mendel, Watson and Crick?

They are all great scientists and the common thing about them is that they laid the foundations for the vast field of modern biology and even medical science. My work is also deeply based on their theoretical contributions. When I talk about my accomplishments, it is impossible to discuss them without thinking about DNA, genes, chromosomes and individuals. 

Does the possibility of treating or curing diseases trump all ethical objections to your work?

I don?t think a probable methodology for conquering incurable disease stands above the universal validity for moral philosophy. My only hope is that my work can be a help to all people in despair.

Are there any valid ethical objections to embryonic stem cell research? How do you respond to those objections?

The most frequent objection is that there are better chances to clone individuals if there are advances in my technology. However, I still think it is impossible to clone the human, and it is beyond the limit of science.  

With ethical concerns swirling around embryonic stem cell research and treatments now taking place using adult stem cells, including some performed by fellow South Koreans, why not take the path of least resistance and work only on therapies using adult stem cells?

As all you may know, adult stem cells still have many problems and limitations before they can be for medical or scientific purposes in the very near future. Here I must indicate that the product of my work is not purely the embryonic stem cell. I like to designate it as a ?somatic cell nuclear-transferred human stem cell.? It is different from the classical definition of embryonic stem cell. Some day we can imagine producing the same kind of cell without introducing any human ovum.

What troubles you most about the opposition to embryonic stem cell research?

The hardest thing for me is that I have to respond to many questions that are not directly related to my work. I am just one of scientist, and I am happiest when I am in my laboratory.

You have said,  ?The scientific effort to resolve the pain of patients with incurable conditions is very honorable, and I believe no mere individual politician or party can stop the historic trend." Do you see those opposed to your work as being less committed to healing illnesses?

No. I don?t think my opponents have the imprudence to hinder the development of medical science. What I like to point out is that we, including myself, should state our opinions after having more serious discussions about science, medicine, ethics, societies and religious beliefs.

The head of the Vatican?s Pontifical Academy for Life has condemned your work, saying, "The suppression of a human being can merit only one judgment: it is unacceptable. To destroy one life in order to save another remains an aberration." Some Confucian leaders in your country have also spoken out against your work. Is there room for compromise with these religious groups?

The crack begins from the disagreement over the definition of the origin of life. In my experience, it is a difficult thing to hold the same view as those groups. What I can say is that, although I am more of a scientist than a truth-seeker, I have the same esteem for human life as any other person.

Recently you called human cloning  ?ethically outrageous.? What ethical or moral distinctions do you draw between your work and what you define as human cloning?

Cloning a human is to make an individual. This is frustrating thing and, as I said earlier, impossible. My work has never been intended to go that way, and I am totally against it.

Have your religious views evolved or changed since the controversy over your work erupted?

I do my work as a scientist to cure the incurable illnesses.

Do your family members share your views on embryonic stem cell research?


How do you want to be remembered?

As a person who contributed to the cure of untreatable diseases.


Woo-Suk Hwang is Posco Chair Professor in the department of theriogenology and biotechnology in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Seoul National University in South Korea.