It’s necessary to reactivate biotech research
South Korea has now emerged as the second country in the world to start clinical trials on embryonic stem cell therapies after the United States. On Wednesday, the National Bioethics Committee decided to allow Cha Bio & Diostech, a firm affiliated with the Cha Medical Center, to conduct such treatment with humans for the first time in the nation.
The approval has significant implications as it will reinvigorate stem cell research that has been in doldrums since a manipulation scandal involving disgraced cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk. The move followed the 2009 lifting of a ban on somatic stem cell cloning which had been imposed in 2006 in the wake of Prof. Hwang’s scam.
The Cha biotech firm is waiting for final approval from the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA). For now, there is little possibility that the regulator may veto the clinical trial plan. The company is seeking to grow stem cells into retinal cells that will be used to treat a rare retina-related disease. One of the major hurdles is that the authorities have so far refused to allow stem cell experiments on humans.
The panel’s interpretation is that cells such as retinal ones grown from embryonic stem cells are not subject to a strict research ban under the bioethics law. It opens the way for researchers to find cures for intractable illnesses and conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries.
It is necessary to promote research and development in both embryonic and somatic stem cells to beef up the nation’s biotech industry, one of the country’s promising growth engines. The world market for stem cell bioengineering is likely to grow to $40 billion in 2015. The U.S. invests $700 million in stem cell research every year, followed by Japan with $500 million.
However, Korea only sets aside a mere 40 billion won ($37 million) per year to support stem cell research. In addition to this budgetary problem, the nation is faced with the more challenging issue of life ethics. In theory, bioengineers may produce human organs from stem cells in the not-too-distant future. But, this is seen as a mixed blessing as the novel biotechnology could find a solution to incurable diseases, while posing a threat to human dignity and the value of life.
Thus, the authorities, scientists, researchers and businessmen should not neglect their efforts to respect bioethics, while stimulating stem cell experiments. What’s at stake is how to keep a balance between a biotech breakthrough and life ethics. This is easier said than done. But we had better face the brave new world without sacrificing important human values.