[OUTLOOK]Patients must be patientThe World Stem Cell Hub has opened at Seoul National University Hospital, and patients suffering from illnesses began enrolling to offer their stem cells for research on November 1. As the first step in the search for a cure for terminal illnesses, the hub is garnering not only domestic but also international attention. After only two days of registration, more than 10,000 patients had enrolled, reflecting the national interest and expectation.
As the director of registration and one of the medical staff at the World Stem Cell Hub, I would like to express my sincere gratitude for the national support and anticipation. At the same time, I take a strong sense of responsibility and duty to heart.
However, I would like to briefly explain the research process because the prospective patients need to have a proper understanding of the process of research and treatment instead of having a vague anticipation about stem cell research. At present, we do not yet have an breakthrough remedy for incurable diseases completely different from existing methods. The patient registration is not a part of the treatment process but only the first step for clinical research. In other words, we have not developed a universal treatment method like a panacea as some prospective patients might think. Instead, we are at a research stage, taking a different direction and using stem cells as we seek remedies for terminal illnesses. In the research for new medicine, only one out of 100 newly-developed medicines can be given to patients after animal and clinical testing, and the research process takes five to 10 years. Similarly, stem cell research has to go through a very complicated and long process. What is more important is that we need a process to verify stability and long-term effectiveness through objective and thorough long-term tracking.
I would like to give a brief introduction to stem cell research. First of all, we will review the applications submitted to the World Stem Cell Hub and select patients suitable for research through the Medical Research Ethics Committee. The patients will be interviewed two to five times. However, patient registration and selection do not mean the beginning of treatment. After consulting with specialists, the patients suitable for research and willing to donate their stem cells will sign an agreement for donation. Skin cells will be taken from the stomach of the patients, and stem cells will be cultured. When cures are tested on primates, and their stability is verified, the clinical tests will begin. Before stem cell cures can be applied to patients, the cure has to go through a complicated and long verification process on the safety of using embryonic stem cells on humans, stable specialization into nerve cells, and long-term effectiveness. Until a treatment technology is developed, there wil be a considerably long research process. It is expected that at least five to 10 years will be required before cures can be applied to actual patients.
By offering an alternate direction in the search for treatment and giving hope to patients suffering from incurable illnesses to one day overcome their diseases, stem cell research is more meaningful than the development of a treatment method. However, as stem cell research has barely entered the process of preparing for clinical tests, the patients might get hurt if they believe this research is a new remedy for terminal diseases and expect too much. Moreover, such anticipation could pressure researchers and might delay progress in their research.
Stem cell research has just left the starting line in an exhausting and arduous marathon in the search for cures. Just as the patient registration and selection has been, the entire process will be transparent and will abide by principles based on ethics. From now on, the stem cell research staff will never forget the prayers of this country and its citizens and will devote themselves to the research for cures. Instead of putting too much expectation and blindly believing the research is a panacea, we need to patiently await the day when the safe and long-term benefits of stem cell treatment methods are verified.
* The writer is a professor of neurology at the Seoul National University Hospital and a director of registration at the World Stem Cell Hub. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Yoon Byung-woo