By Professor Eugene Yun (International Studies)
I am ashamed to admit this, but until last week I had no interest in stem cell research. Thanks to Professor Hwang Woo-Suk, however, I now suffer from full-blown Stem Cell Fever, or SCF.
You should check to see if you too have caught SCF. The symptoms are: (1) you believe that stem cell research will find cures for a large range of diseases, such as diabetes, spinal cord injuries, and even Alzheimer's; (2) these cures are "just around the corner"; (3) Korea will be the new Mecca for stem cell research and biotechnology; (4) Korea will be rich; and (5) you feel proud to be Korean.
The last time Korea decided to collectively feel proud, everyone celebrated by jamming the streets, wearing cool t-shirts, and chanting, "Dae~han~min~gook!" That was June, 2002.
Biotechnology has no World Cup. That is a pity. Were such a tournament (playing against nature and against other nations) organized, we would soon learn just how poorly man is faring against nature. Professor Hwang articulated this idea best when he said, "Ahead of us are mountains after mountains."
Consider items (1) through (5) described above. First, it is not clear whether or not stem cell research will produce the desired "cures." Second, even if the answer were yes, these cures are very far away mountains after mountains.
Third, Korea could perhaps become a center for global biotech research. But despite a generous promise by the government to increase funding for Dr. Hwang's stem cell research, Korean scientists financially will lag far behind their counterparts in advanced countries, such as the US.
The sad news, therefore, is that stem cell research is not going to make Korea rich. At least not right away. This is particularly bad news for the punters in the stock market who caught SCF early. Several Kosdaq companies shot up like a rocket soon after local press got wind of Professor Hwang's research break-through. Other than wishful thinking, it is hard to see the connection between the soaring stock prices and Dr. Hwang's new findings.
Finally, does all this mean that (5) cannot hold? The answer is an emphatic "NO." Dr. Hwang indeed has given Korea something to be proud about. So, catch the Fever. Celebrate. And if you happen to go near the stock market, be careful.