Four years after being at the center of the biggest scientific fraud in history, disgraced South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk is back in the business of cloning. This time, though, his focus is on reconstituting dogs for grief-stricken pet owners.
Hwang first made international headlines in 2005 when it was revealed that he had fabricated research on human-embryo stem cells and published his fakery in the journal Science.
Before his fall from grace, a cult of personality had emerged around the veterinary professor. A celebrity darling on the campus of Seoul National University (SNU), the country's premier institution of higher learning, he was even waited upon by government-provided bodyguards.
The reason he had shot to fame so quickly was simple: South Koreans, obsessed with the quest to win their first Nobel Prize in the sciences, had Hwang fingered as the local boy to bring the prestige home. The eager government dubbed him Korea's Supreme Scientist, and his accomplishments were lauded in Korean history textbooks.
When he fell, he fell hard. As the scandal surrounding his forgeries unraveled, he was indicted for fraud, bioethics violations, and the embezzlement of $2.7 million in research funds. He was also fired from his university post and stripped of funding.
Hwang later found another foothold to continue his research. He became the head of Sooam Bioengineering Research Institute in Yongin, a satellite city of Seoul, and brought his SNU loyalists along as research associates. But he could not conduct research on human stem cells without government approval.
In the summer of 2008, Hwang's application to the Korean Health Ministry to undertake research on human stem cells was rejected. The National Bioethics Committee cited not only his track record of scientific fraud, but also other ethical lapses, including coercing female junior researchers into giving him eggs for research.
With human stem cells out of the question, Hwang returned to the expertise that had first earned him a reputation as a pioneering scientist: cloning dogs.
He and his team at SNU had in 2005 produced the world's first cloned dog, a male Afghan hound named Snuppy. (Later tests have proven that Snuppy is the real deal, a genuine clone.) In August 2007, Hwang entered into a business partnership with a California-based biotech firm, BioArts International, that aims to commercialize pet cloning with a project called Best Friends Again.
Hwang, however, isn't the only person in the world with the dexterity to clone dogs. His former SNU colleague, Lee Byeong-chun, has a successful track record of his own. SNU, which claims it owns the cloning techniques used to produce Snuppy, recently made a worldwide licensing agreement with Seoul-based biotech company RNL Bio to produce cloned dogs -- with Lee in charge.
An intense rivalry has developed. At present these two factions, the only two laboratories in the world that have successfully cloned dogs, are embroiled in a war over who has rights to assorted patents. Meantime, their doors remain open for business.
There's potentially a lot of money at stake. RNL's chief executive, Ra Jeong-chan, says that with prices for cloned dogs ranging from $30,000 to $50,000, he expects his enterprise to soon become a multimillion-dollar business.
It is thanks to Hwang that these days South Korea is the epicenter of commercial dog cloning -- not quite the contribution Hwang expected to make to science or national greatness.