Stem Cell Research
It's Important to Ensure Bioethics and Regulations
A recent decision by the National Bioethics Committee to lift a ban on somatic stem cell research has reflected the nation's urgent need to join the international race in the development of new biotechnology. The ban was lifted three years and two months after the nation imposed it following a scandal involving disgraced cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk, who was found to have used fabricated data.
On Wednesday, the committee conditionally approved Cha Medical Center's research plan related to somatic or adult stem cell cloning. It called on the Seoul-based hospital to conduct its research primarily on lab animals and to restrict its use of human ova to 800, down from 1,000.
The panel also demanded the hospital remove all references to stem cell research leading to ``cures'' for such illnesses as Parkinson's disease, strokes, diabetes and spinal cord injuries. The committee also ordered that an independent review board be set up at the hospital to check for possible abuse and ethics violations.
It is clear that the strings attached to the approval are designed to avoid opposition to stem cell research from religious organizations and conservative groups. The Hwang case, which shocked not only the nation but also the world in 2006, has made it very difficult for the committee and the government to allow the resumption of the research.
Therefore, it is of vital importance to guarantee that such a scandal will not happen again. The Hwang nightmare inflicted a tremendous amount of damage to the nation's stem cell research programs. The country has suffered from international derision and humiliation in the field of scientific breakthroughs. But now, the country had better emerge from the crisis to compete with the United States, Britain, Japan and other countries that are taking the lead in stem cell research.
No one can deny the fact that this research has great potential to find cures for intractable diseases. Technologies developed from stem cell experiments are key to the development of the biotech industry, which is one of the nation's new growth engines. Some think tanks predict that the global market for the technologies will rapidly expand to $100 billion in 2012.
That's why the Barack Obama administration has decided to provide federal financial support to stem cell research despite heated debate over ethical issues. South Korea can no longer afford to sit back in this scientific field. The decision to lift the research ban, albeit conditionally, is a step in the right direction. The Cha Medical Center is expected to start its research as early as this month after receiving final approval from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family.
But the nation will have to tackle many problems to revitalize the research and produce successful results. First, policymakers and scientists must firmly establish transparent guidelines and regulations on how to conduct experiments and use the results for practical purposes. It goes without saying that life ethics should be strengthened. More state support is also vital to promoting the research. And close collaboration between the government, research institutes and businesses is required to translate study results into practice. In addition, we must learn a painful lesson from the Hwang scandal in order not to repeat the same mistake.