October 19, 2005

S.Korea launches ambitious global stem-cell project

By Edward Davies and Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea launched on Wednesday a an
ambitious project to make the country a global hub for
stem-cell storage and research, hoping to further cement its
status at the forefront of cloning research.

Helped by generous government support and an absence of
some of the red-tape and ethical debate that has hampered
research in countries such as the United States, South Korea is
fast becoming a key center for stem-cell research.

Stem cells are master cells in the body that can develop
into any cell type. Scientists are trying to learn how to
manipulate them for transplants to treat diseases such as
Alzheimer's or diabetes.

"The work being done here is not about getting ahead
financially. It's about starting international cooperation that
will go on to benefit the entire mankind," President Roh
Moo-hyun said at the opening of the World Stem Cell Hub.

Stem cells will be stored at Seoul National University
Hospital and made available to international researchers under
the project.

So-called stem-cell banks already exist in Britain and the
United States, although South Korea hopes that its excellence
in the area will attract maximum global collaboration.

South Korea's government had invested 30 billion won in
stem-cell research, said Im Jung-gi, chief executive of the hub


Professor Hwang Woo-suk and his team of researchers at
Seoul National University made world headlines earlier this
year when they created stem cells with a patient's specific
genetic material, derived through cloned embryos.

The same researchers later created Snuppy, the first dog
cloned from adult cells by somatic nuclear cell transfer. That
is the same technique used by British researchers to create
Dolly, the world's first cloned mammal, and other animals.

But the research is controversial and some religious groups
and politicians oppose embryonic stem-cell research, saying the
destruction of an embryo to harvest the stem cells is akin to

Many U.S. scientists say their work in this area is being
hurt by the Bush administration's reluctance to fully back the

In the United States, federal funds for experiments using
human embryonic stem cells are restricted, and rival bills in
Congress could lift these restrictions or tighten them further.

"One concern is the issue of bioethics. But it is the role
of us politicians to manage the issue so that it does not
hinder the progress of excellent science like this," Roh told
an invited audience of academics and diplomats from around the

Professor Hwang said he felt U.S. debate over the ethics of
the research should be respected.

But asked if he expected America to eventually be fully on
board he said: "Absolutely, absolutely. That's a matter of

The British scientist who led the team that created Dolly
the sheep told Reuters he expected South Korea to make more
progress in the research and saw a lot of room for
international collaboration.

"It is a key component of the international effort to
co-operate in research rather than compete," said Professor Ian
Wilmut, who works at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh.