Korea to Join Stem Cell Race
By Kim Tong-hyung
South Korea has been reluctant to support local scientists for research into cloned human stem cells.
However, with the new U.S. government deciding to lift the country's restrictions on federal funding for new stem cell research, Korean regulators are feeling increasing pressure to do the same for researchers here.
The National Bioethics Committee last month delayed its decision over whether to allow the Seoul-based Cha Medical Center to conduct research on embryonic stem cells created from cloned human embryos.
The committee will gather to make the verdict sometime next month, but according to those close to the discussions, the final word is favored to be a ``yes.''
``The reason that the decision was delayed last time was that the members of the committee agreed that the Cha Medical Center should have proposed a more detailed research plan on human embryonic stem cell lines, as there was no reason to cut corners in making an important decision,'' said an official from the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
``You have to say that the medical center would be granted an approval on the second meeting once they clear all the ethical concerns,'' he said.
Research on cloned human stem cells has been banned in Korea since 2006, after Hwang Woo-suk's landmark discoveries were exposed as fraudulent.
The Cha Medical Center had applied for approval in embryonic stem cell research, claiming that the technology is crucial for developing effective treatments for medial conditions such as Parkinson's diseases, spinal injuries, diabetes, and cardiovascular disorders.
According to Cha officials, bio ethicists had ordered the hospital to tone down the titles of some subjects that could invite ``excessive expectations,'' reduce the amount of 1,000 eggs it planned to obtain and include an outside member in its institutional review board.
The hospital is currently working on the draft of the new plan it will send to the committee soon.
``We will reduce the number of eggs to about 300,'' the official said.
Researchers claim that embryonic stem cell research and other forms of therapeutic cloning could open new opportunities in developing patient-specific treatment, eliminate tissue rejection during transplants and allow them to secure a larger amount of stem cells for research.
However, the destruction of human embryos in the process, as well as the ethics debate surrounding cloning, makes the technology controversial. There are also concerns about the welfare of the women who will provide eggs to produce the embryos.
Hwang, formerly a researcher at Seoul National University (SNU), reached rock star status, rare for a scientist, in 2005, by claiming to have created cloned embryos from patient-specific embryonic stem cells.
He was fired from the school a year later after the studies were deemed fraudulent.
Even if plans to resume research on embryonic stem cells are green lighted, it is unlikely that the government would ever grant Hwang a second chance.
``Hwang will have a hard time restarting his stem cell work in this country,'' said the ministry official.