] In Korea, research on creating stem cell lines using cloned human embryos has been virtually suspended following the cloning scandal of Hwang Woo-suk, which erupted in 2005 causing a stir around the world.
Hwang, then a professor at Seoul National University, claimed that he had successfully established stem cell lines from cloned embryos. But his work was discredited as he was found to have fabricated a series of experiments.
The scandal prompted the government to enact the Bioethics and Safety Act to strictly regulate research on embryos. The law requires research institutes to win government approval for studies on somatic cell nuclear transplants, the approach used by Hwang.
Due to the strict regulations, only one research project based on the method has since been carried out. In 2009, CHA University sought to generate stem cell lines through embryo cloning, but it failed.
One reason for its failure was that it had to use frozen eggs for embryo cloning due to the legal ban on using fresh eggs. The cloning process involves removing the nucleus of an egg cell and inserting the nucleus from a somatic cell into the empty egg cell.
The importance of using fresh eggs was shown by the success the university’s research team achieved in the United States in 2014. At the time, the team conducted research using fresh eggs.
Recently, the university decided to resume its stem cell research based on embryo cloning after a seven-year break. It proposed to use 600 egg cells in the next five years to develop treatments for intractable diseases.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare approved the research plan, but with tight strings attached. Most importantly, the research team still cannot use fresh eggs.
Earlier this year, President Park Geun-hye proposed that the ban on using fresh eggs in stem cell research be lifted, but removing the ban requires an amendment of the law.
The research team is also required to ensure that the National Bioethics Committee can monitor its process of egg collection and destruction. It should also allow the committee to conduct field inspections to preclude any possibility of the cloning technique being used for human cloning.
The university is also required to establish its own bioethics committee to see whether the research team abides by high ethical standards.
These arrangements are onerous, but they are designed to ensure that stem cell research is carried out without raising unnecessary ethical issues.
The tight regulatory framework is also intended to ease protests from religious circles. Many religious groups argue that stem cell research should be discontinued because it involves the destruction of human embryos.
But Korea cannot afford to let ethical and religious issues hinder progress in stem cell research at a time when advanced countries are investing heavily to develop biotechnology.
Embryonic stem cells hold enormous potential in treating intractable diseases as they differentiate into any cell type. They are distinguished from adult stem cells found in adults that can produce only a limited number of cell types.
Korea’s stem cell research has been in a deep slump since the Hwang scandal. Now it is time for the government to stimulate research on this important field to accelerate the growth of the bioindustry.
In this regard, its approval on the CHA University’s research plan was well-advised. It needs to soften regulations to provide fresh impetus to private-sector efforts to advance stem cell research.