He’s not a politician, a tycoon, or a pop star. But these days, Hwang Woo Suk may enjoy more popularity and respect in South Korea than the hottest celebrity. He is a pioneer of embryonic stem cell research — and a national hero. The government even issued a postage stamp in his honor in February that juxtaposes an image of growing stem cells with silhouettes of a man rising from a wheelchair, walking, and embracing another person.
This is the respect he richly deserves for bringing South Korea to the forefront of Stem Cell Research.
Hwang’s accomplishment has emerged from a country that has not been a leader in basic science. He was first to reach the goal of “personalizing” stem cell lines, in part because rival U.S. scientists have been hampered by restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. While some Koreans share President George W. Bush’s ethical concerns in this area, surveys show that the vast majority support Hwang’s work. Most seem to agree with him that the potential medical benefits outweigh other considerations. “Hopes of giving new life and joy to those suffering from incurable diseases make me renew my determination,” Hwang says — adding that he will remain sensitive to other people’s worries and “bear them in mind to make sure I won’t veer off course.”
Hwang was born during the Korean War and grew up in a poor mountain town in the central Korean province of South Chungcheong. His father died when he was 5, and his mother borrowed money to buy a cow, which became his family’s most valuable possession. As a schoolboy, Hwang helped care for the animal. “I learned to communicate with the cow eye to eye and decided to become a veterinarian,” he says.
In the near term, Hwang’s goal is to show that laboratory-engineered stem cells can help heal damaged spinal cords in rats, dogs, and possibly monkeys. If these trials go well, in two to three years he’ll seek permission to conduct human trials in Korea and the U.S. Whatever direction the stem cell debate may take overseas, to Hwang it’s all about saving lives.
I wish him success with all my heart. Such men are the messiah’s of the new century.