A stem cell scientist thaws a frozen capsule containing cord blood to extract stem cell from it at the Medipost's manufacturing facility in Seoul. / Courtesy of Medipost
Korean biotech firms challenge global leaders with state-of-the-art technologies
By Park Si-soo
Korea's roaring global leadership in stem cell research collapsed in 2005 with Hwang Woo-suk's fraudulent attempt to crown himself as the world's first scientist to clone human embryonic stem cells.
His data fabrication shocked the world and, in an apologetic response, the government toughened regulations radically and declared a moratorium on the support for other "innocent" stem cell scientists and institutes.
These measures were put in place for years, dealing a devastating blow to the country's fundamental health in the promising medical sector, while rival countries, including the United States, Britain and Japan, have since ratcheted up efforts to win the covetous position.
The U.S. seems to be leading the race, considering that it became the first country last month to recover stem cells from cloned human embryos, a much-anticipated achievement that could lead to a new breakthrough for such hard-to-cure illnesses as Parkinson's disease and diabetes.
It's obvious that Korea has now fallen behind in the race. Yet this doesn't necessarily mean there is no chance for Korea to regain its past glory.
There are several companies in Korea making headway to win global recognition of their stem cell therapy technologies.
Medipost made rare headlines early this week by becoming the country's first exporter of an adult stem cell "drug." The Seoul-based biotechnology company said its stem cell drug Cartistem, designed to treat knee cartilage defects caused by degeneration or repeated trauma, has been used in Hong Kong.
"This was the first case of this kind," said Jang Min-hoo, a Medipost spokesman. "This is very meaningful in that our stem cell drug was recognized overseas and, broadly speaking, Korea's stem cell technology has regained international confidence."
A man in the 50s with severe degenerative arthritis received the landmark therapy at an orthopedic hospital in the city state's downtown, Queen's Road Central, on June 14, according to the company.
Medipost has contacted doctors in Hong Kong since November to sell Cartistem, Jang said. In March, the firm invited Hong Kong orthopedists and journalists to Seoul to allow them to closely monitor procedures using the drug.
"The drug is currently being given to patients recognized by Hong Kong's authorized prescription system," said Lee Jang-young, Medipost's chief sales manager. "We are trying hard to get wider use of the drug."
Last week, the company patented its stem cell treatment for tumors in the U.S. In April, another was proven to be effective in treating Alzheimer's disease by Mexican health authorities and earned a patent there.
In February, the firm signed a contract with Australian stem cell therapy provider Cell Therapies to promote the sales of Cartistem in Australia and New Zealand.
Pharmicell is widely known as the world's first developer of a stem cell therapeutic drug. The Seoul-based company made headlines in July 2011 by getting a license to sell "Hearticellgram-AMI," a stem cell therapy for acute myocardial infarction, from the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA).
The pioneering medicine takes somatic stem cells extracted from the patient's own body that are then cultured and directly injected into his or her damaged heart.
The firm has since seen a steep rise in sales — up to 10.2 billion won ($9.02 million) during the first quarter of this year, the highest in the company's history. It posted a net operating loss of 1.5 billion won during the period, as a result of aggressive investment, but industry observers say it will soon swing into the black amid brisk sales of stem cell drugs at home and abroad.
"We have a bright future," said Kim Hyun-soo, Pharmicell CEO, during a symposium in Seoul early this week. "The demand for our products continues to rise. Plus, we have formed partnerships with other stem cell therapy developers to manufacture new products more efficiently."
In the symposium, the company said it had inched closer to developing new products that treat problems with the heart, liver, brain, spinal cord and penis.
"We are carrying out the final in a three-stage test on a drug for strokes and spinal cord injuries," said a Pharmicell official familiar with the matter. "A drug for liver cirrhosis is in the second stage of testing, while another one for erectile dysfunction is in the first stage."
In April, Pharmicell joined a team of medical institutes to make an investment in Saudi Arabia under the "Medical System Twinning Project."
Under the program sponsored by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the company will spend nearly 80 billion won to build a stem cell research and development center at King Fahad Medical City.
Other institutes involved are Seoul National University Hospital (a heart science center), Gachon University Gil Medical Center (a brain imaging science center), Samsung Medical Center (a neuroscience research center) and the Korea Cancer Center Hospital (a radiation therapy center).
Cha Bio & Disotech
Cha Bio & Disotech has concentrated itself on developing a stem cell drug for Stargardt's disease and age-related macular degeneration. Stargardt disease is an inherited form of juvenile macular degeneration that causes progressive vision loss usually to the point of legal blindness.
Established in 2000, the company is moving to diversify its product portfolio by developing drugs for Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease using stem cells extracted from placentas and fetuses.