Bioeconomy in South Korea, Again

Posted by Pete Shanks May 15, 2012
Biopolitical Times
2005 South Korea stamp

South Korea is boosting the bioeconomy again, just as Washington is. Less than a decade after the Hwang Woo-suk scandal, the South Korean government is once again ramping up funding for stem cells and regenerative medicine.

Nature News reports that the health ministry is increasing funding to four times last year's level, and that in all six ministries will be investing 100 billion won ($87 million). For comparison, the NIH in 2011 spent $123 million on human embryonic stem cell research alone, plus $395 million on non-embryonic human stem cells and $785 million on non-human stem cells. But South Korea has a history of targeted industrial investment that has catapulted the country into the modern world. The government focused on shipbuilding, then on automobiles and computer chips, with huge success: Over the last 50 years the South Korean people went from being poorer than their Northern cousins to having about 13 times the per capita income.

The latest budget confirms reports from last fall that South Korea is once again aiming to be a "stem cell powerhouse." This renewed push for biotechnology is, however, a bit of a surprise, because they tried that before. And they got badly burned. Government funding for Hwang Woo-suk's research on cloning and regenerative medicine seemed to be paying off in 2004-5 when he published papers that won front-page headlines around the world, claiming to have derived patient-specific human embryonic stem cell lines. The government then announced "a four-year basic plan to improve domestic biotechnology to the world's seventh-best level by 2010" and ramped up R&D funds by 24% a year.

Hwang's fans in the public were sold on the idea that his work was vital for the economic future of the nation. There were plans for a World Stem Cell Foundation, to be headed by Hwang and based at Seoul National University, with satellite labs in California and England. There was even a postage stamp (pictured) showing someone leaping from his wheelchair to embrace his wife.

And then it all fell apart. Hwang was exposed as a fraud who faked data, abused women to procure eggs and embezzled funds. (The Korea Times recently ran this brief summary of his career.) After a long scandal, he received a suspended jail sentence and has not been allowed to continue with human research. He does, however, continue to clone animals, commercially and for research, and keeps trying to make a comeback.

Meanwhile, a South Korean company is involved in the Texas stem-cell controversy. The Korean government itself has investigated claims of fraud around "stem cell cosmetics." President Lee Myung-bak casually refers to the Hwang scandal as a "disappointing incident," and insists that stem-cell research can be a "core new growth engine." And there is a renewed push for human cloning in Korea. Haven't we been here before?

Update, May 17: Nature now reports that South Korea has launched an Institute for Basic Science (IBC) with a budget of around $4 billion through 2017, spread around 50 research centers, and life sciences as "its top priority." According to the Yonhap News Agency, the IBC hopes to attract "top scientists from around the world" to help South Korea "make a leap into the ranks of advanced, top-class nations."

Previously on Biopolitical Times: