[VIEWPOINT]Korea can’t go it alone in stem cellsStem cells have boundless potential that can open new chapters in the treatment of diseases. Stem cells have two characteristics distinct from ordinary cells. One is that they can multiply themselves endlessly, and the other is that they can differentiate into cells that can perform particular functions when the environment of the cells is controlled.
If we discover a method of freely controlling these two traits, we can multiply the number of stem cells required for treatment of diseases by as much as we want and use the stem cells by differentiating them into the form necessary for any treatment.
Stem cells can be used to replace, supplement or even regenerate damaged cells or cell functions. They can also be used as transmitters of treatment matter by utilizing their propensity to move toward lesions.
This year, our country’s stem cell research team, led by Hwang Woo-suk, a Seoul National University professor and renowned stem cell researcher, and Ahn Curie, another professor at Seoul National University’s College of Medicine, has emerged as the world’s leader in the stem cell research area by developing customized stem cells, or somatic cell nuclear transfer, for the first time in medical history.
Customized stem cells refer to stem cells whose genetic information is made identical to that of a patient by inserting the donor’s eggs in somatic cells separated from the patient.
Customized stem cells have great significance in that their use makes cell treatment possible without the concern of immune system deficiency afterwards.
Stem cell transfers can also be applied to the development of customized medicines by making a cell cultivation or organizational environment that reflects a patient’s genetic specificity within a species.
Only our country has this somatic cell nuclear transfer technology, which has tremendous potential, and as far as somatic cell nuclear transfer is concerned, scholars all around the world acknowledge that South Korea holds the source technology for stem cell research.
To maintain and further develop this technological advantage in the biomedical field that the research team achieved with great difficulty, it is important to be well-equipped with a vision and strategy for the future.
A few days ago, Seoul National University Hospital opened its World Stem Cell Hub, an institute that will serve as a stem cell bank and global center for stem cell research.
The establishment of the center gave opportunities to establish a global stem cell research network, strengthen the collaborative research system between basic medical science and clinical medicine, take the lead in advanced clinical research, including cell treatment, regenerative medicine and development of patient-customized new medicines, and introduce our country’s biomedical research ability and technological capability to the world.
Another important significance of the World Stem Cell Hub is that the institute can take the initiative in setting global standards with regard to somatic cell nuclear transfer or nuclear transfer for stem cells. The World Stem Cell Hub may take this opportunity to expand its role in combining standards for embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.
The role of the World Stem Cell Hub, however, remains at the basic research stage for clinic applications.
In other words, its research is at the initial stage of developing treatment methods by using cells gained from a small number of patients.
Although patients suffering from currently incurable diseases and their families may be anxious to see quick progress, treatments using stem cells can become universal treatment methods only when they are preceded by years of research.
As is the case with every type of research, stem cell research cannot guarantee a successful future that meets people’s expectations 100 percent.
I am concerned whether the general public will have hasty and excessive expectations and misunderstandings of stem cell research. I hope that impatient demands from the many people interested in the project will not prevent the research that has a long way to go.
Instead of creating a hustle and bustle by calling for stem cell research in a hurry, we should prepare a timetable that people around the world can share with each other, clearly outlining the expected progress of the research, and proceed step by step.
In addition, the stem cell research needs support urgently at both the national and global levels.
Before stem cells from laboratories can be used in the treatment of patients, there are many stages to go through, including molecular biological research on diseases, research on the differentiation of stem cells, pre-clinical studies using animals and clinical trials.
To go through these stages, personnel, physical and institutional support should be provided.
As to the diverse ethical issues over stem cell research that will be raised in society, there should be a process of active, sound and balanced discussion followed by the reaching of a consensus.
* The writer is the dean of College of Medicine at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Wang Kyu-chang