▲ Prof. Park Se Pill celebrating the 100-day anniversary of the birth of his second cloned calf, above. The first calf that Park and his team cloned, below. All photos courtesy Mirae Biotech Co, Ltd
Much of what is considered news-worthy that occurs on Jeju Island is smothered by the sounds of development and tourism. With slogans such as Korea’s Hawaii, the honeymoon island and other tourist-enticing mottos, it is no wonder that some of Jeju’s other prevalent characteristics and achievements are often overshadowed. One such case is the successful cloning project at Jeju National University.
In mid-June, a press conference was held at the Green Grass Square out front of JNU at which Prof. Park Se Pill and his Mirae Biotech team unveiled their latest accomplishment, a cloned black bull they named Heukoldolee, of the huku breed which is indigenous to the island. What made this bull so important was not that it was cloned - Park had showcased a cloned black bull the previous August – but that it was cloned from a beast that died in 2008, he said. However, the cells were taken while the animal was still alive.
In an exclusive interview, Park said that he was not the first to “revive” a dead animal as others have cloned deceased pets, but he was the first to clone a dead animal of that size, and with a high success rate. The six to 10 percent success rate Park claims may seem insignificant, but considering that Dolly the sheep, the first animal to be cloned, was one of 277 attempts, this achievement represents a giant leap forward.
A former student of JNU, Park returned to his alma mater as a professor in 2006 after 12 years of working at an infertility clinic in Seoul. With his arrival, the University began to pursue cloning. “My objective at JNU has two focuses - first, stem cell research, and secondly, the preservation of endangered species,” Park said.
Currently, there are only 400 Jeju black cattle in the world and Park is hoping to use his advanced cloning techniques to help conserve the species. “It is very important to protect the breed,” he said, “because the Jeju black cattle are only in Jeju.”
The technique Park and his team employed is called somatic cell nuclear transfer. The process begins with the retrieval of a somatic cell, which is a cell from the body of an organism and not from the sperm or the ova. In the case of Heukoldolee, the cells used were skin cells taken from the cow’s ear. The next step is to remove the cell nucleus and implant it into an unfertilized egg, and then electric shock is applied to stimulate cell division and reproduction. Once cell division is observed, the fertilized egg is implanted into a host carrier and after the gestation period a clone is born.
This is essentially the same technique that created Dolly the sheep in 1996, but Park’s high success rate, he said, can be attributed to subtle fine-tunings of the process. Park would not divulge the specifics of his advancements, but said, “Since I’m an embryologist, I’m good at assessing the quality of an embryo. In cloning, the donated ova are really important. Getting rid of the original nuclei and inserting new nuclei without damaging the cytoplasm is the most important technique.” He added, “Optimizing the voltage [of the electric shock] is also important.”
Cloning is often a controversial issue, but Park said he has received no complaints or criticism from Jeju citizens, although he experienced many protests while in Seoul because human cells were being used. Due to fabricated results and the unethical acquisition of human ova by former Seoul National University Prof. Hwang Woo Suk, Park said the government banned the use of human cells in cloning. “Before the Hwang incident,” Park said, “there were no regulations.” He considered the regulations unfortunate. “Before all these regulations we could take skin cells from a human and put them into a human ovum to create stem cells.” The stem cells could then be used to produce any organ of the human body. Park’s team was successful in 2002 in cloning from these embryonic stem cells and holds a U.S. patent for cloning from frozen embryonic stem cells.
Due to the work of Park and his nine-member team, as well as research conducted at other universities and institutions, what was once considered science fiction, is now reality. “If you give me your skin cells,” Park said, “in one year, I will give you a clone baby.” “Cloning humans is much easier than cows because the shape of the human ova is simpler. The plasma is clear. In cows the plasma is murky and we have to dye the nuclei so it can be seen.” There is currently an international ban on human cloning, Park said. “Because the highest success rate is only 10 percent and if you kill 40 people, then you are a mass murderer.”
Setbacks that Park and his team have encountered have been those of proximity. Currently his lab is located in Seoul, but recently JNU has allotted the fourth floor of one of the university buildings for the relocation of the majority of his research. Another problem is that the cows from which he gathers his specimens are slaughtered in Busan or Seoul. That requires him to travel more than 100 times a year between Jeju and the Korean mainland. “I’m glad I can do it, but physically I am very tired,” Park said.
Technological limitations on cloning appear to be dissolving. Park said that if he were to acquire a single live mammoth somatic cell, such as from an animal frozen while alive, he would be able to bring back the extinct species. Currently a Japanese institution is attempting this, he said. Whether individuals think this ethical or not, what was once impossible is now the present. Cloned animals will become a source of food production, Park said, which is another of his interests. In Korea, there is no law against the consumption of meat from cloned animals.
With each advancement in cloning and with Jeju’s tourism infrastructure already in place, it may be only a matter of time before Korea’s Hawaii becomes the nation’s Jurassic Park.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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