After the decision of the United States to remove the ban preventing stem cell researchers from using public funding for experiments, legislators in South Korea have been put under pressure by scientists who have been aspiring to do experiments on stem cells from cloned human embryos.
Up until a few weeks ago the National Bioethics Committee continued to postpone a decision on the matter, but now thanks to the American president, it is increasingly probable that at most, by the end of April, researchers of the Cha Medical Institute of Seoul will be able to resume experiments on stem cells generated by cloned human embryos.
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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.
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The South Korean bioethics committee has lifted a ban on human stem cell research. The decision will now allow for work on human embryonic stem cells to resume after being interrupted three years ago following the scandal involving Hwang Woo-suk, the false “pioneer of human cloning”. The veterinarian, a national hero at the time, fell from grace after the international scientific community and the University of Seoul uncovered that results from his research on embryonic stem cells were falsified in the laboratory to give the impression that his group was successful in cloning healthy cells from cells affected by incurable diseases.
The lifting of the research ban, explained the bioethics committee, involves a hospital in Seoul (Cha General Hospital), which will resume research under four conditions: written approval from women donating eggs (only those from aborted fetuses will be used); the use of laboratory animals to reduce the use of these eggs to a minimum; instituting a surveillance committee to avoid abuses; the names of the studies must not refer to words or meanings that could “feed false hopes”, including mentioning “cure for Parkinson’s”. The decision to lift the ban must receive authorization from the Health Ministry, and in all likelihood, it will not be rejected.
South Korea seems to be following the policy decisions regarding bioethics of the American administration. Among the steps taken by US President Barack Obama, is also the decision to resume financing for human stem cell research with an initial allocation of one billion dollars. “The decision will restart research,” said Chung Hyung-Min, who pointed out that such studies “have been performed by English scientists and other countries” but until now “there have not scored any successes”.
Embryonic stem cell research has sparked a heated worldwide debate involving ethics, science, and the right to life. The position of the Catholic Church has always been that it considers embryos as human lives. In May of 2008, bishops confirmed strongly condemned the revisions of the law on bioethics approved by Parliament, which allow for those who accept to participate in cloning experiments to be eligible for “reimbursements of their expenses”.
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