Cloning Man's Best Friend

After cloning a cow in 1999, a pig in 2002 and a human embryo in May 2005, was there any challenge left for Hwang Woo-suk, a professor of theriogenology (the science of animal reproduction) and biotechnology at Seoul National University? Indeed there was, as evidenced on Wednesday, when Hwang introduced Snuppy, the world's first cloned dog, a shaggy Afghan hound born by Caesarian section to a Labrador surrogate on April 24. Hwang spoke this week with NEWSWEEK's Mark Russell in Korea. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: So why a dog? What is different about dogs from the other animals already cloned?

Hwang Woo-suk: Dogs have a very different physiology from the other animals that have been cloned so far. Dog eggs don't mature in their ovaries, while the other species of animals' eggs mature in the ovaries. In the end, we had to use 1,095 dog eggs and we tried to implant them into 192 dogs. It was very inefficient. With more than 400 dog breeds displaying remarkable behavioral traits and diverse disease predilections, canine [cloning] holds promise for both veterinary and human health discoveries. Canine genome studies may have wide-ranging applications, from anthropology through narcolepsy and sensory physiology.

Where do you hope this research leads?

This research is not about copying people's pets at home. It can be applied to treat human diseases with dog models.

You started doing veterinary research. How did that progress to working on human stem cells?

Our lab was originally focused on the production of industrial animal livestock. Then we expanded from cloning cows to pigs. A pig's organs have similar anatomical structures and very close physiology to humans, so we tried to clone pigs for xenotransplants, for organ transplants into humans. After that, Seoul National University Hospital doctors suggested we collaborate in the stem-cell area, so we started experimenting on human stem cells. Now we have established 11 stem cell lines.

Cloning raises all sorts of ethical issues. How do deal with them?

All scientific research involves types of ethical concerns. I respect people's opinions about those ethical concerns. I believe that scientists should talk with people about ethics, so that they know the limitations on their research and keep the guidelines. Actually, we have met and discussed with bioethicists and religious groups and politicians. We have been advised of their opinions and we've talked about our methodology. Of course, our research plans have been supported by the [South Korean] Ministry of Science and Technology, and we work with the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Some countries are having big ethical debates about human stem-cell cloning. It seems that you've had some freedom in South Korea from this debate.

The Korean government has strict guidelines about human materials research and animal research, too. I hope as many countries as possible will [avoid] stupid regulations and restrictions; stupid meaning without scientific and reasonable contents, like just prohibiting all human material research.

Do you think the restrictions on stem-cell research in the United States have hurt that country's competitiveness and ability to do research?

Many countries have their strong points that we can learn from and utilize. I believe that our success is attributed to many results produced by American scientists.

But haven't you criticized President George W. Bush for his stem-cell policies?

No! I never criticized President Bush. I respect him. Each country has its own history and culture and its own political values. President Bush decides American policy based on America's own values. I understand that.

Have you been surprised at all the adulation you have received in Korea? For example, you have been given free first-class travel for 10 years by Korean Air.

I have become so busy, traveling to the United States and other countries. Sometimes when I travel to the U.S., I arrive in the morning and have to come back on the plane that same night, so Korean Air's support and upgrades have been very helpful and I appreciate it.

How have you dealt with this newfound celebrity? I don't feel any attention. I leave for work at 5:50 in the morning, when there are few people around and I come home around midnight. Except Sundays when I come just at 7 a.m. We have 60 people here, almost all of them working the same hours. My wife has me 4 hours every day [when he sleeps]. That's enough. My wife is so proud of me. I think we achieved our successes in human stem cells because of all our experience on animals, working without Saturdays or Sundays for 10 years.

So far your work seems very experimental. Are you close to any practical advances, therapies?

Our lab has two major areas of research, xenotransplants and stem-cell research. Xenotransplants need further study. Human stem cells, too, need additional steps to determine safety and efficacy, using animal trials before there will be any human applications.

What's the next big step for you and the field?

We have so many and such difficult hurdles we have to overcome before we reach the final goal. But animal trials will be next. Downstairs right now are several world-renowned stem-cell biologists. They've visited several times this year. We discuss collaborations. Many labs suggest and ask us to collaborate for specific areas. I think we have to share our technology with as many laboratories as possible. We need global scale collaborations to shorten the period from [laboratory] bench to bedside.

Would you consider working somewhere else?

No. I am sensitive to the feelings of the Korean people. The Korean government, including President Roh [Moo-hyun] and the opposition party has understood me and wanted to help. I could never find any other country where I could be understood and supported like Korea.

You've said that your lab's successes at cloning have come in part because of chopsticks. Explain.

I was kind of joking. However, as you know, we Koreans do have a lot of manual dexterity, so I think some of that dexterity might be from the traditional use of chopsticks.