[Seri column] Time to get back in the stem cell race

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[Seri column] Time to get back in the stem cell race

In early 2005, when Korean elementary school students were asked who they respected most, the majority named Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, who was basking in global attention for his claimed breakthroughs in human embryonic stem cell research. The national hero was the subject of a biography for young readers, and the government awarded him a 20 billion won ($15 million) research grant.

But since the discovery late in 2005 that Hwang had fabricated the data for his acclaimed article in the science journal Nature, public mistrust has thrown embryonic stem cell research to oblivion in Korea.

A stem cell is essentially the basic building block of the human body. Adult stem cells can only grow into a specific tissue or cell, but embryonic stem cells are capable of differentiating into all kinds of tissues and cells during the growth of embryos into adults. Thus, if we conduct embryonic stem cell research, we can understand how a cell develops and dies and possibly prevent currently incurable diseases such as cancer, dementia, diabetes and heart disease by attacking the root causes.

Accordingly, stem cell research is expected to lead to a fundamental change in the paradigm of traditional medicine, which has mainly focused on preventing the spread of disease, curing specific diseases and easing pain. In particular, if embryonic stem cells can be differentiated into all tissues and cells, they could have more potential than adult stem cells as medical treatment agents. The possibilities make treatment with stem cells a potential gold mine for the biomedical industry.

Commercialization of stem cell research is expected to result in a $30 billion industry by 2012. The United States, Britain, the European Union and Japan are racing to become market leaders at the vanguard of this shift in medical treatment. The U.S. has already initiated a clinical phase II study of adult stem cell-derived drugs that could treat chronic heart disease and, for the first time in the world, authorized a clinical trial of embryonic stem cell drugs that could treat spinal injuries. Britain has also authorized a clinical trial of embryonic stem cell drugs, and Japan has built up a database that evaluates the toxicity and safety of new drugs by using stem cells.

To get Korea into this race, academia and the government need to reinvigorate support for stem cell research. A consensus is needed among all members of society to resume a vigorous commitment. Without a shift in public attitude, the nation will not be able to move past the national trauma of the Hwang scandal. Opportunities in the biomedical industry will need to be explained and research safeguards adopted to reach a consensus.

The power of this kind of consensus was seen in 2004 in California, when a $3 billion ballot initiative was approved for embryonic stem cell research. The Stem Cell Research Support Act, which defied the Bush administration’s restrictions on government funding of the research, paved the way for a 10-year project to make California into a global stem cell research hub.

Before the Hwang scandal, Korea was thought to be among a handful of nations that had the core technology to make embryonic stem cells.

Since then, adult stem cell research has proceeded in Korea, but annual funding has been frozen at $25 million since 2006 and embryonic stem cell research has been halted to prevent unethical harvesting of embryos for research. It is time to expand financial support and review long-term development plans, considering the potential commercial gains.

We also need to move quickly to build a solid base of experts versed in stem cell research in Korea and abroad. Since interdisciplinary support and training is needed, it may be more effective to carry out stem cell research in conjunction with Korean scientists abroad rather than to carry out the research exclusively in Korea. In addition, we have to find a way to encourage pharmaceutical companies to cast aside their negative attitude toward stem cell research and join future studies. Their participation is necessary considering the commercial potential.

Finally, policy makers, nongovernmental organizations and religious figures have to reach a consensus on research ethics and other factors that have come to light since the Hwang case.

This is imperative to restore the trust of both Korean society and of the international science community in stem cell research in Korea. Moreover, guidelines are required to help us handle additional research issues as they surface.

*The writer is a research fellow in the technology and industry department at Samsung Economic Research Institute. For more SERI reports, visit www.seriworld.org.

by Choi Jin-Young
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