Lessons From A Cloning Scandal

Hwang Woo-Suk, Movie Star
Biopolitical Times
Poster for the Netflix documentary

Poster for King of Clones (Netflix documentary) via Wikipedia

Back in the early years of this century, the most prominent rogue in biotech was a South Korean scientist named Hwang Woo-Suk. He became one of the best-known scientists in the world, and achieved rock-star status in Korea, when he reported his success using human cloning to create embryonic stem cells. Not long thereafter it was revealed that he had faked his results, triggering a new round of global headlines and personal humiliation. 

Yet when the publicity faded, he pressed on. And wouldn’t you know it, multiple biotech scandals later – think Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos, He Jiankui’s CRISPR babies, hundreds of fraudulent stem cell clinics – Hwang Woo-Suk is back in the headlines. On June 23, 2023, Netflix released a documentary about him titled King of Clones. His spectacular rise and fall holds key lessons for today.

The few professional movie critics who have so far reviewed it like the film. But as someone who followed the Hwang story closely, I see it as a missed opportunity. Hwang (in the Korean fashion, the family name comes first) does his considerable best to appear thoughtful and charming, and is never confronted with hard questions. Moreover, the movie fails to explain in any detail the political and social pressures in Korea that led to the extraordinary stardom that Hwang briefly achieved. Nor does it adequately address the burdens and incentives that can affect scientists everywhere. It shows a 70-year old man, apparently in good health, living what looks like a fairly luxurious life, cloning camels and making regular visits home. It does not raise, much less challenge, continuing claims that scientists can or should regulate themselves.

And in at least several fields related to controversial human biotechnologies, scientists are proceeding with just that assumption. Examples: The creation of synthetic embryo models is racing ahead in a legal and ethical gray area. Scientists have proposed to drop (or at least adjust) the 14-day rule on embryo research, and make other laws governing their activities more easily modified. He Jiankui is actually proposing new gene-editing experiments.

In such an environment, questions about how to control tendencies that could lead to abuse by the unscrupulous ought to be an important focus of this kind of biography.

From Cloning Cows to Embryonic Stem Cells

Hwang was an unlikely candidate for notoriety, a country boy born in 1953 who loved animals, and whose father died when he was five. He worked on a farm and managed to get into college and eventually be awarded his PhD in the science of animal reproduction at the most prestigious school in the country, Seoul National University. He was inspired by the announcement in 1997 of the first cloned mammal, the sheep called Dolly. Hwang was smart, energetic, and ambitious; it was often said that his goal was to win a Nobel Prize, and animal cloning was a novel field he could hope to master. 

By the late 1990s, Hwang was riding high, primarily on the basis of having cloned cows. These experiments have never been confirmed and the results were never formally published, but they were not implausible – just remarkable. He definitely did later clone dogs and other species. He was proud to be named South Korea’s Scientist of the Year in 1999 (playing down the fact that he shared the award with two others). 

From animals, he moved on to people, and specifically to work with human embryonic stem cells, which were a very hot topic, both scientifically and politically, at the time. Some people viewed “therapeutic cloning” as a kind of holy grail for personalized medicine; others, most prominently President George W. Bush, objected on largely religious grounds, leading to a ban on federal funding in the US for research with newly created human embryonic stem cell lines. (That ban led indirectly to the foundation of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which now focuses on funding gene therapy.) Many others expressed great concern about the potential for exploitation of women who would be needed to donate or sell their eggs for research. And there were widespread concerns about the possibility of reproductive cloning of people, which was being advocated by some scientists and others who should have known better.

Hwang’s star rose much further with the 2004 publication in Science of a paper describing his breakthrough creation of human embryonic stem cells by cloning; and then another Science paper in 2005 describing the creation of 11 human embryonic stem cell lines using 185 human eggs, a level of efficiency that fueled claims that the process could one day be made medically useful. For a year or two he really was on top of the world.

The Scandals About Human Eggs and Fake Science

The human eggs were the Achilles heel that first revealed that all was not well with Hwang’s work. Who were the women who provided them, and under what circumstances? Were they paid, and if so how much? It turned out that many of the eggs had been provided by women working in Hwang’s laboratory, who had been pressured to contribute. One of them admitted as much in 2004 to David Cyranoski, who was then the Southeast Asia correspondent for Nature and played a critical role in uncovering the scandal. And just how many eggs were involved? It was eventually revealed that Hwang’s experiments had used well over 2,000 eggs, roughly five times the number documented in the published papers. 

But it was all a fraud. The claims in the 2005 paper were not true. The Science articles included illustrations that were billed as photos of each of the eleven embryonic stem cell lines. But closer examination proved that nine of them were from the same cell line. Fakes. 

A tipster who had been involved with Hwang’s 2004 work emailed PD Note, a South Korean TV program that did investigative work, on June 1, 2005 and sat for an anonymized interview. He not only provide more detail about the egg scandal but suggested, without definite proof, that the data in the 2005 paper must have been fabricated. The MBC network then broadcast a report about the eggs that caused a tremendous uproar of pro-Hwang public disbelief, which led to the postponement of a follow-up program about faked data. But another anonymous tipster, probably a student, posted on a listserve that people should check the images of cell lines in the 2005 paper; another poster confirmed this, and eventually, on December 15, the network allowed the segment to be aired. The rise and fall of the cloning king, Dr. Hwang is still available on YouTube and still well worth watching. The January 6, 2006 report in Science, “How Young Korean Researchers Helped Unearth a Scandal ...” has the background. 

Cyranoski recently published a good summary of the story for The New York Times, in which he focuses on one critical issue the Netflix documentary never addresses: serious systemic deficiencies in the self-regulation of science.

Animal Cloning For Profit

Hwang lost his job and most of his reputation, but he was not finished. He had already set up the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, and returned to animal cloning. Especially cloned pet dogs. There is a market for that. They are said to go for $100,000. For a while he was in partnership with the US-based BioArts, the successor to Genetic Savings and Clone (sic), founded by Lou Hawthorne, a Californian entrepreneur who aimed to clone his mother’s dog, using her billionaire boyfriend’s money. Hwang made four clones and Hawthorne kept one, who lived to be twelve and a half and was much loved. But Hawthorne quit the business, for various reasons including what he called “unscalable bioethics” and unpredictable results, including oddly colored fur, skeletal malformations and in one case the clone of a male being born female. NPR paid a visit to Sooam in 2015 and was dubious about the animals’ welfare. 

Moving right along, Hwang at one point claimed to be discussing a partnership with Shoukhrat Mitalipov of OHSU, who denied it. Hwang did set up a lab in Thailand; developed a relationship with BGI, the company that once searched for the genetic basis of intelligence, and other Chinese enterprises; investigated possibilities in Libya; dabbled in mammoth revival cloning; and most recently has been working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he was called up to clone a magnificent camel and developed quite a business of re-creating the most successful racing camels. 

That bring us back to the just-released Netflix movie. After a rapid two-minute introduction, it opens with the camel-cloning business; it closes with Hwang saying (apparently during a visit with his pastor in Seoul) direct to camera:

“Some say that cloning is against the will of God, against Mother Nature and natural creation. Some say it’s an extravagant attempt to play God. But, how can anyone definitively claim that this … that this really is God’s realm?”

A Cautionary Tale for the Scientific Community

Three days before Netflix released their movie, a couple of wise guys operating under the rubric Things I Learned Last Night published their own 67-minute take on Dr. Hwang Woo-suk – The Great Korean Cloning Scandal. They pronounce his name “You Suck” and giggle a lot, though if you can stand the tone (freshmen on weed), their factual analysis is essentially accurate, as far as I managed to get through it. Their conclusion, as posted on the website, makes a lot of sense:

In conclusion, the Korean Cloning Scandal and Dr. Hwang’s story serve as a cautionary tale for the scientific community. While his work was once celebrated, his fraudulent claims and subsequent downfall highlighted the importance of transparency and ethical conduct in scientific research. By learning from this scandal, researchers can strive to maintain the integrity and trustworthiness of their work and continue to push the boundaries of science ethically and responsibly.

A better movie than the one on Netflix (or the wise guys) is a two-part documentary on “Korea’s King of Cloning” by BobbyBroccoli (aka Kevan MacKay), sponsored by Nebula and posted on YouTube in April–May under two more descriptive titles:

Part 1: The man who faked human cloning
Part 2: How to catch a criminal cloner

That’s the one to watch, if you have a couple of hours to spare. Part 1 opens with President George W. Bush’s first nationally televised address, on August 8th, 2001, which was all about embryonic stem cells, a very useful reminder of how controversial that research was at the time. The film is particularly good on the pressures deriving from Korea’s rapid development. It was government policy to encourage scientific and industrial advances, and part of that program involved naming Hwang Woo-Suk in 2005 “the first recipient of the title Supreme Scientist, an honor worth US$15 million.” (The title was revoked in 2006.) This movie closes with a summary voice-over:

Hwang is obviously the center of this story, a once-beloved, deeply unethical fraudster. But he’s not the whole story. Because what this story shows is there were hundreds of systemic failures at all levels of society. ... The lesson of this story is not, wow, look how messed up South Korea is, but rather that this can happen anywhere that prioritizes progress for the sake of progress, over caution and the health and safety of the public.

Abuse of science is not inevitable. But as theoretical and experimental investigations race forward, it becomes both harder and more important for regulators to stay ahead of rogues.