Bioethics Blogs

Stem-cell fraud makes for box office success

Posted on behalf of David Cyranoski and Soo Bin Park

Fictionalized film follows fabricated findings

Stem cell fraudster faces down the journalist who debunks him in the film sweeping Korean cinemas.

Stem-cell fraudster faces down the journalist who debunks him in the film sweeping Korean cinemas.

Wannabe Fun

A movie based on the Woo Suk Hwang cloning scandal drew more than 100,000 viewers on its opening day (2 October) and has been topping box office sales in South Korea since then. With some of the country’s biggest stars, it has made a blockbuster out of a dismal episode in South Korean stem-cell research — and revealed the enduring tension surrounding it.

The movie, Whistleblower, shines a sympathetic light on Woo Suk Hwang, the professor who in 2004 and 2005 claimed to have created stem-cell lines from cloned human embryos. The achievement would have provided a means to make cells genetically identical to a patient’s own, and able to form almost any type of cell in the body. But hopes were shattered when Hwang’s claims turned out to be based on fraudulent data and unethical procurement of eggs. The whistleblower who revealed the fraud says the new movie strays far from reality.

“This topic is sensitive, so I was hesitant when I got the first offer,” said director Yim Soon-rye at the premiere on 16 September in Seoul. “I wanted to portray him [Lee Jang-hwan, Hwang’s character in the film] as a character who faces a very human problem, and to show there is room to understand his actions.”  Although clearly inspired by the real-life events surrounding Hwang and his cloning claims, the film does not aim to be a true representation of events, but a ‘restructured fiction’ created for a movie audience.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.