By Kim Tong-hyung
South Korea has allowed local researchers to resume studies on cloned human stem cells in a landmark decision Wednesday.
After delaying its judgment twice, the Presidential Committee on Bioethics lifted the country's three-year-old ban on research using embryonic stem cells created from cloned human embryos. This allows the Seoul-based Cha Medical Center to carry out its plans for research on these and other forms of therapeutic cloning as it looks at ways to develop efficient treatments for difficult to cure diseases.
The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, which has the final say-so, said it plans to approve the decision as soon as possible, which will allow the hospital to start research projects as early as next month.
In applying for approval, the Cha Medical Center had claimed that the disputed technology was crucial for developing treatments for medical conditions such as Parkinson's diseases, spinal injuries, diabetes, and cardiovascular disorders.
However, the committee had previously ordered the hospital to tone down its plan on some subjects that could invite ``excessive expectations,'' reduce the amount of ova it planned to obtain, and include an outside member in its institutional review board.
In lifting the ban, the committee called on the hospital to minimize the use of human eggs by having the research conducted primarily on lab animals. The use of human eggs will be limited to 800 for the research, lower than the 1,000 originally requested by the center.
The hospital was also required to remove all references about stem cell research leading to ``cures'' for certain diseases and improve the quality of its consent process for egg donors.
An independent review board will be established within the hospital to check for possible abuse and ethics violations.
Research on cloned human stem cells was banned in Korea in 2006, after Hwang Woo-suk's landmark discoveries were exposed as fraudulent.
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 SNU a year later after a school panel ruled the results of his studies were faked.
Researchers claim that embryonic stem cell research 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 provide eggs to produce the embryos.