South Korean stem-cell expert Hwang Woo Suk, who fell from "supreme scientist" status to almost a pariah in cloning research after he was found to have fabricated some results a decade ago, is set to make his comeback in a big way - with industrial-scale animal cloning.
His laboratory, Sooam Biotech, has partnered Chinese biotech company Boyalife Group to open the world's largest animal cloning factory in China's northern port city Tianjin by early next year.
Announcing the news last week, much to the horror of many animal activists, Boyalife said the 200 million yuan (S$44.2 million) project will start producing 100,000 cattle embryos a year and eventually ramp up production to one million a year, to cater to the country's rocketing demand for quality beef.
These figures may seem astronomical, considering that Sooam has cloned only about 700 dogs since 2005, when Dr Hwang famously unveiled the world's first cloned dog - Afghan hound Snuppy.
But Sooam spokesman David Kim expressed confidence it will be able to increase production in collaboration with Boyalife and other Chinese partners. "We have great researchers here in Sooam, and we will scale up the operation with trained professional researchers in China as well. There will be an estimated 150 additional researchers, so it won't be too difficult for us to undertake this operation."
I am terribly unhappy with Hwang's return. I believe that his crimes were too big to be pardoned.
PROFESSOR SONG SANG YONG, a South Korean bioethics expert, on new work by disgraced South Korean stem-cell expert Hwang Woo Suk. Dr Hwang was found to have faked test results and was convicted in 2009 of embezzling research funds
Sooam itself has 60 researchers, and Mr Kim said it may set up branch offices around China to boost production.
Boyalife senior manager for corporate planning Emma Li said it is the "main driving force" for the project that also involves Peking University's Institute of Molecular Medicine and the Tianjin International Joint Academy of Biomedicine. She added that Boyalife has directly invested in research and development in Sooam, and they have signed "binding agreements to co-commercialise the technologies and know-how from Sooam".
The two companies set up a joint venture last year in eastern Shandong province and successfully cloned three pure-blooded Tibetan mastiff puppies. It marked the beginning of commercial cloning in China, said Xinhua news agency.
News of the Tianjin venture, however, has triggered fears in China, with social media users questioning the safety of cloned beef and the ethical standards of the new lab in a country that has been rocked by food scandals, from toxic milk powder to fake rice.
This is even as Boyalife chief executive Xu Xiaochun declared that "cloned beef is the tastiest beef I've had", and Ms Li also promised that the beef will be "subject to the highest food safety standard".
A spokesman for American animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Ms Ashley Fruno, said animal cloning is unethical, and that "performing cruel experiments on animals to try and clone more cows who will suffer painful mutilations and live horrible lives on factory farms is ridiculous".
Dr Hwang is no stranger to criticism, having weathered one of the worst scandals in scientific history.
Once deemed a national hero, the veterinarian shot to international fame for creating the world's first cloned human embryos in 2004.
He was later found to have falsified some results and was convicted in 2009 of embezzling research funds. But there were people who still believed in him and continued to support and fund his research.
When The Straits Times met him at his lab in Guro district in southwestern Seoul last month, Dr Hwang came across as a humble, hard-working man who said he had no time to watch TV or read newspapers.
Besides cloning dogs for private customers, mainly from the US and some from Asia, including Singapore (see other report), Sooam also does research on cloned pigs, and participates in government projects to clone cows and police dogs.
It has produced 30 copies of Trakr, the German shepherd that famously pulled the last survivor from the fallen World Trade Center in New York after terrorist attacks in 2001. Three clones were delivered via caesarean section by Dr Hwang and his nine-member team during this reporter's visit.
"You are very lucky!" he said, referring to the fact that most pregnancies yield only one puppy each.
Mr Kim said the pregnancy efficiency rate is 35 per cent to 40 per cent, which means one out of three dogs will get pregnant after a fertilised embryo is surgically inserted into its womb. The surrogate dogs are sourced from laboratory animal providers and, after giving birth twice, they will be moved to a ranch run by Sooam. "We take care of them until they pass away of old age. Sometimes, we have customers who will take the surrogate mum with them, too."
He said Sooam follows all ethical regulations and is subject to frequent checks by government agencies to ensure it treats animals well.
Still, there are some in the biotechnology circle who fear Dr Hwang is just biding his time to return to human cloning research, "presumably to restore his reputation", noted Mr Pete Shanks, a consultant with US-based Centre for Genetics and Society.