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Will Korea Fall Behind in Stem Cell Research?

Posted March. 11, 2009 08:37,   


A rush toward embryonic stem cell research is expected in the wake of the U.S. government’s announcement of providing funds for the sector.

The United States and Japan have made steady progress with state support in stem cell research.

Korea saw progress in the field earlier than other countries, but such research remains deadlocked due to the 2005 fraud scandal of Hwang Woo-suk.

Even with limits on federal money for embryonic stem cell research that were previously in place, American researchers continued their work with money from state governments.

In 2007, California spent 200 U.S. million dollars on stem cell research and the United States poured in 640 million dollars into the field.

Britain invested 92 million dollars the same year. These efforts have earned the United States and Britain most of the patents on advanced stem cell technology.

For its part, Japan is focusing on a new process called dedifferentiation. The dedifferentiation of differentiated human somatic cells into a pluripotent, embryonic stem cell-like state called induced pluripotent stem cells addresses an ethical dilemma that embryonic stem cell research has.

Since a Kyoto University team established in 2007 a dedifferentiation process to produce induced pluripotent stem cells with a significantly low risk of cancer, Japan has invested 26 million dollars in this new field.

On the contrary, the Korean government suspended last month a review of a request by Cha Biotech to resume embryonic stem cell research based on somatic cell replication.

The National Bioethics Committee asked the hospital to submit a revised research proposal detailing how to obtain ova for research purposes.

The Health, Welfare and Family Affairs Ministry and bioethics experts said the committee is expected to give the green light to embryonic stem cell research using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer.

A ministry official said, “The committee suspended the review of the request for a further revision,” adding, “The research will likely get the go-ahead when the committee reviews the revised proposal again.”

The committee’s plenary session for the final review is slated for next month.

Korea has made progress in stem cell research using human embryos obtained through in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. In 2007, the country had 59 embryonic stem cell lines.

The focus of the scientific circle, however, is on induced pluripotent stem cell research, an area which Korea has recently joined.

Korea’s prospects for stem cell research are not dim, however. Despite the disgrace brought on by Hwang’s research fraud and the cancellation of his work, the dedication of domestic researchers has maintained Korea’s position as a world leader in the field.

According to the journal Cell Stem Cell in January 2007, Korea ranked fifth in the number of journals published on embryonic stem cells after the United States, Israel, Britain and Singapore. Korea ranked 14th if those on adult stem cells were included.

Experts say the timing of investment is critical.

Oh Il-hwan, head of the functional cell treatment department at Catholic University of Korea, said, “The world is at war over stem cell research. What is clear is that we cannot give up on the field.”

“Now is the time to conduct more focused and forward-looking research and support.”

Oh also urged more support for basic research. “Stem cell researchers around the world are returning to basic studies,” he said. “Without a firm basic research foundation, commercialization of the research will be further delayed.”

He also stressed the need for a state-sponsored certificate system to confirm the reliability of domestically cultivated stem cells.

Cha Biotech CEO Chung Hyung-min said, “When we use domestically obtained stem cells, clients in the U.S. and Britain ask us to use stem cells from their countries. To address the reliability factor, the (Korean) government should urgently establish a stem cell registration and verification system.”