The Ministry of Health and Welfare in South Korea has approved an application for research on human embryonic stem cells (ES cells), made by the researchers who last year created the world's first cloned human ES cell-line. Last month, the South Korean parliament finalised guidelines that ban human reproductive cloning, but which permit ES cell research aimed at developing new disease treatments. The application, which comes from Woo Suk Hwang's team at Seoul National University, was for research aimed at developing new treatments for 18 diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)/AIDs (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).
The new legislation offers government support for ES cell research, but tightens control on it, requiring all biotechnology institutes to register with the government. Woo Suk Hwang's team 'will now be able to step up its stem cell research under the government's management system', a ministry statement said.
The stem cells present in very early embryos are the body's 'master' cells, capable of growing into any type of tissue. Since the unveiling of Dolly the cloned sheep, in February 1997, scientists have been investigating the possibility of using stem cells from cloned, early human embryos to develop tissue-matched therapies for diseases such as Parkinson's disease and diabetes: an approach known as 'therapeutic cloning'. The South Korean team were the first to derive cloned ES cells, a breakthrough which they reported last February. Several groups around the world are now trying to repeat their success, in countries where such research is permitted.
Meanwhile, Muslim states are being asked to allow therapeutic cloning research, whilst banning human reproductive cloning. The proposals appear in the draft text of the first international Islamic code of medical and health ethics, approved during the Islamic Organisation for Medical Sciences, held in Cairo last month. The proposed code could affect the text of the United Nations (UN) declaration on human cloning, due to be finalised next month. In November 2004, the UN abandoned attempts to adopt an international convention on human cloning in favour of a more general non-binding declaration, after member states failed to agree on whether a ban should encompass both therapeutic and reproductive cloning.