By Kim Tae-gyu
Korean scientists are moving closer to cloning embryonic stem cells, the unprecedented breakthrough that their compatriot and disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk claimed to have achieved in 2004, only to have this disproved later.
Currently, a team at the Cha Medical Center is working on a project after getting state approval last year, while another team headed by professor Park Se-pill at Jeju National University is also set to begin research.
Park and his associates are awaiting final approval from the National Bioethics Committee.
"If the endorsement is made before June, we should be able to clone human embryonic stem cells sometime next year," said Park, who extracted stem cells from human embryos, not cloned ones, in 2000.
"Our embryologists' technology is leading on the global scene. Hence, I believe that Korean teams should be able to create cloned embryonic stem cells in the not-so-distant future," he said.
Researchers both at home and abroad have channeled a huge amount of time and energy to clone embryonic stem cells as they are hailed as a future panacea that can deal with hard-to-treat diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer's.
Korea was regarded as a pioneer in the promising field back in 2004 when the now discredited veterinarian Hwang claimed to have cloned human embryonic stem cell batches.
The next year, he contended that his team created patient-specific stem cells, which many experts expected would soon open the door to therapeutic cloning. But later both exploits were found to be based on fabricated data.
Studies on cloned human stem cells were practically banned here following the scandal and programs only restarted under very strict restrictions midway through last year.
In the meantime, Hwang is also attempting to regain his impaired reputation through cloning embryonic stem cells with his partners at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation.
The former professor at Seoul National University, which fired Hwang in 2006 due to the scandal, applied twice in 2008 and 2009 to resume his experiments on cloned stem cells.
His requests were rejected but Hwang shows no sign of giving up.
"The requests were rejected as Hwang was embroiled in a lawsuit. After this is finished, Sooam will apply for approval once again," said professor Hyun Sang-hwan at Chungbuk National University, also an advisor at Sooam.
"Hwang and his people are currently working on cloning embryonic stem cells from animals so they will be able to focus on human stem cells as soon as the green light is given," he said.
Hwang was put on trial on charges of embezzlement and fraud that lasted several years, receiving a two-year jail sentence suspended for three years in 2009.
Both Hwang and the prosecution lodged an appeal against the verdict.