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South Korea ends moratorium on embryonic stem cell research

3 May 2009
Appeared in BioNews 506

South Korea's Presidential Committee on Bioethics has granted the first human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research licence since their preeminent research scientist fell spectacularly from grace amidst allegations of scientific fraud and embezzlement, over three years ago. Cha Medical Center in the South Korean capital, Seoul, has been given the go-ahead for research into ES cell cloning, paving the way for renewed research into the treatment of various diseases, and drawing a line under the cloning scandal that rocked the international science community and damaged confidence in the efficacy of ES cell research, both in South Korea and beyond.

In 2005-2006, scientist and national hero Woo Suk Hwang, then working at the Seoul National University, was exposed for massive scientific fraud and breaches in ethical conduct, and has been on trial in Korea ever since. Eleven ES cell lines, alleged to have been genetically matched to patients, were fabricated by his team, following research that used eggs from paid donors and junior researchers. In addition, the team's claim to have created the world's first ES cell line from a cloned human embryo - an innovation that promised to revolutionise the field - was also faked. The revelations led to the closure of the World Stem Cell Hub in 2006, established to promote global efforts in stem cell research, particularly for incurable conditions like Type 1 diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

In 2008 the South Korean Health Ministry rejected a similar licence application by the Suam Biotech Research Foundation, a company owned by Hwang, because of his associations with it.

The new decision means that South Korean stem cell scientists, once considered the leaders in human ES cell research, will now be allowed to resume work on producing human stem cells through cloning, as long as it satisfies a number of stringent preconditions designed to maintain ethical and scientific integrity. These include primarily using lab animals, thus reducing the use of human eggs, renewing written permissions from human donors, and the establishment of an independent institutional review board that will scrutinise the research. Sensationalist claims of 'cures' on the basis of research results will also be banned. Each research proposal put forward by the Cha Medical Center will now be individually reviewed by the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, before being given final clearance.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Korea Conditionally Lifts Ban on Stem Cell Study
Korea Times |  29 April 2009
South Korea lifts ban on stem cell research
The Age |  30 April 2009
South Korea moves for first stem cell study
Reuters |  29 April 2009
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