Stem cell `miracle' fleeting

Since revelation of fabricated research, other biotechnology achievements are scrutinized


SEOUL, S. Korea -- When Hwang Mi Soon rose from her wheelchair and shuffled forward with the aid of a metal walker, her small steps were trumpeted around the world. "Stem-Cell Gal's Miracle Steps," crowed the New York Post in November 2004, while a New Zealand newspaper proclaimed, "Miracle Cure for Paralysis."

Photos of the 37-year-old South Korean woman who was smiling through her tears accompanied the pronouncements.

Today there are only the tears.

Hwang is back in the wheelchair, which she has used since falling off a bridge as a teenager. She said the purported miracle treatment - which entailed injecting umbilical stem cells into her damaged spine - had only fleeting benefits that wore off after a few weeks. A second procedure in March 2005 caused an infection and left her in constant pain.

"I was like an animal they used for testing," a bitter Hwang said.

The procedure on Hwang had nothing to do with cloning but took place in the giddy atmosphere that followed the purported cloning breakthroughs.

Over the past two years, a collective euphoria pervaded South Korea over stem cells. The too-good-to-be-true claims by scientist Hwang Woo Suk of producing cloned stem cells turned the international spotlight on Korea and spawned a boom in biotechnology ventures. Dozens of companies offering everything from cancer treatments to anti-aging potions raised money.

"The Korean government made biotechnology a kind of national mission," said Han Jae Gap, an investigator with South Korea's National Assembly.

Regulations were eased in mid-2004 to allow experimental procedures with stem cells to be performed on what were defined loosely as "emergency cases."

Some 150 such procedures have been carried out since then. Dozens of biotech companies raised money on the stock market. Patients flew to Seoul from Europe and the United States to undergo stem-cell treatments that were untested and in some cases, illegal in their own countries.

But in the wake of the disclosures about Hwang Woo Suk, the bubble has burst.

With much of the human cloning research proving to have been fabricated, other purported achievements in biotechnology are coming under scrutiny. A three-judge Seoul district court panel ruled in December in favor of 10 patients who claimed that they were misled into undergoing expensive and ineffective stem-cell treatments for chronic liver ailments.

"They were telling us about one patient who was in a coma and then after the procedure she was climbing Mount Halla," said Choi Mi Ae, a 54-year-old liver patient, referring to the island's most famous peak. Choi said she was so convinced by claims of a cure that she almost removed her name from a waiting list for a liver transplant.

"If I had done that, I wouldn't be alive today," Choi said. "There was no effect from the procedure, nothing at all."

The court awarded Choi a refund of half the $40,000 she spent on the treatment.

The verdict against the Halla Hospital on Cheju, an island off the southern coast of Korea, and a private company, Histostem, is being appealed. Histostem, based in Seoul, said that Choi and the other patients knowingly chose a highly experimental treatment at their own risk.

"Stem cell products are not conventional medical drugs," the company said in a statement. "It was impossible for Histostem and the medical institution involved in the therapy to guarantee complete recovery."

Histostem also was involved in the surgery for Hwang Mi Soon.

The company acknowledged that there were complications in her second operation but said it was not the fault of the company because it only supplied the stem cells.

Jeong Yeong Seon, a neurosurgeon at Bundang Cha Hospital who is now Hwang's doctor, said injecting stem cells into his patient's spine probably relieved some of the pressure temporarily but did not lead to any meaningful improvement.

"There should have been more clinical testing on animals before they tried these procedures on people," Jeong said.

The South Korean Food and Drug Administration said it was conducting a review of about 150 stem cell procedures that had been conducted since mid-2004, when the rules were relaxed.

Jang Yong Uk, an official at the agency, says there are no plans to change the law.

Barbara Demick writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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