Going forward on stem cells

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Going forward on stem cells

Korea became the second country after the United States to endorse the testing of embryonic stem-cell therapy on people. The National Committee on Bioethics gave the green light for a clinical trial using stem cells derived from human embryos.

The experiment had been devised by a team from the Stem Cell Institute of CHA University’s College of Medicine to treat 12 patients losing their vision from Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy.

The Korean institute’s U.S. partner, Advanced Cell Technology, had earlier received permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to start clinical tests using embryonic stem cells to make retinal cells.

It will be the first case that goes beyond local bioethics law, which limits the use of embryonic stem cells to exterior parts of the human body.

Embryonic stem cells - immature cells found in embryos - have the ability to grow into almost any kind of cell.

They pose the most plausible solution to the human race’s eternal desire to lengthen life. But they remain controversial and provoke religious, moral and political arguments.

The stem cells that gained clearance are special types that already completed the cellular differentiation process and therefore are not considered “embryonic” under the current law.

Stem cells are sometimes called “panacea cells” because they can regenerate and repair the heart, liver and other organ tissues, as well as bones and skin. But the transplant process is complex and can cause severe damage. That is why the law is so strict about human trials.

The same committee turned down a request for a research project using human embryonic stem cells instead of frozen cells in fear of sparking a religious and moral uproar.

We nevertheless must push ahead with stem cell research and development. Our reputation in the field received a blow following the scandal over Hwang Woo-suk’s fraudulent stem cell research.

The U.S. approved clinical trials of embryonic stem cells in 2009 and last year allowed their use on human patients. Stem cell technology is vital to biotechnology and is expected to generate revenues of hundreds of trillions of dollars.

Many countries are trying to secure patents and property rights on key technologies. We hope the government’s green light will boost biotechnology development in Korea.
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