"I realized these people are not living," Hwang, 51, says. "They are surviving. That day I made a promise to myself to continue my research until I succeeded."
Last week, Hwang was in Seattle describing his team's breakthrough in cloning human cells for therapeutic purposes, which could lead to the creation of replacement organs and tissues for injured or diseased patients. That could take years, or may never happen at all, because of the controversy surrounding human cloning. Laws passed in Korea last year make cloning for the purpose of making a baby illegal, and legislation coming into effect next year will probably restrict therapeutic cloning to a few institutions granted government licenses and approved by an ethics board.
Hwang says he understands the ethical questions inescapably conjured by his work, but he insists that the research go on, for people like the paralyzed husband he met last year. "The medical value and potential of this is immeasurable," says Hwang. "Halting all related research would be like burning down the stable to catch a flea."
Hwang's dedication to humans is something of a mid-career switch. A trained veterinarian, Hwang teamed up with gynecologist Dr. Moon Shin Yong, a gynecologist and leading fertility expert, after Dolly the sheep was cloned in Scotland in 1996. Part of the work was aimed at creating better livestock: in 1999 they cloned a high-yielding dairy cow in Korea, and last December they announced the successful cloning of a cow resistant to mad-cow disease. But they were also looking at how cloning could benefit humans. Their team has cloned miniature pigs whose organs could potentially be used for transplant to humans. But cloning a human embryo was a faster route to growing replacement organs and tissue.
Hwang grew up in a hardscrabble village in the Korean countryside and remembers eating tree bark and grass roots to survive in the aftermath of the Korean War. His father died when Hwang was five, and his mother owned three cows that she bred for calves. The money kept the family going—cowpats heated their home—and it was Hwang's job to care for the animals after school. He was the only one in his class to get past elementary school, and his mother hoped he could become the village scribe, the most prestigious local job. But the big city beckoned: Hwang's grades were good enough to go to Seoul National University Medical School, the nation's top medical institution, but he chose veterinary school instead. "What can I say? I love cows," he says. "They were my family's No. 1 asset. I think they're remarkable animals."
South Korea is much richer now than in Hwang's youth, but he sticks to a spartan regime. He leaves his humble apartment in southern Seoul at 4:30 every morning to go to a public bathhouse, then heads to a center for traditional Korean breathing to meditate for 45 minutes. The practice "cleanses by body and mind," he says. "It is also a great time to think about research. Some of the ideas I got there have led to breakthroughs." He works seven days a week and never plays golf, a favorite pastime of Koreans of status. Says colleague Moon: "I always tease him, 'You are workaholic.' He has no hobbies except for research."
Hwang says his and Moon's cloning experiments were so complex that there was no eureka moment when they realized they had succeeded. But Hwang plans to celebrate when he gets back to Seoul. "I'm a country bumpkin who grew up in a rural village, and here I am in the United States receiving praise for what I have achieved. The day after I return to Korea, I'll take out my research team for kalbi (Korean-style ribs). Then we'll regroup and start again."