[Letters] Taking global leadership in stem cell technology

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[Letters] Taking global leadership in stem cell technology

Korea suffered a major setback in embryonic stem cell research but maintains the reputable world’s third ranking in adult stem cell field after having made strides in research and licensing. NFL Freelance Wide Receiver Terrell Owens received stem cell therapy in Korea to repair a knee injury. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican contender in 2012 presidential candidate, treated his spine through help from a Korean lab to derive and regenerate stem cells from his own body.

Stem cell types come from two main sources - early-stage human embryo and or inside various tissues in adult stage. There are other intermediary mature cells like the induced pluripotent stem cells that use genetic reprogramming to obtain cells with equivalent function of embryonic stem cells, a discovery that won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012. But no other stem cells than adult cells have so far been clinically proven and successful. Injection or implant of these master cells extracted from bone marrow, placenta and cord blood has not reported any side effects in any country.

Common medical drugs are composites of chemical substances and can cause side effects while being absorbed and spread into the human body. Once commercialization is approved, drugs can commonly be prescribed to a multitude of patients. To prevent medical accidents, new drugs are tested in three stages.

But adult stem cells taken from body tissues to harvest new ones to replenish dying cells or regenerate damage tissues should be differentiated from common chemical drugs. I therefore believe current layers of regulatory policies to ensure their safety are excessive.

More than 500,000 people visit Singapore for medical treatment. Many foreigners come to Korea for cosmetic surgery. Adult cell therapy is also drawing interest from abroad due to their success and safety credentials. The technology could develop into core high-valued growth engine. The government should help pave the way for global leadership and marketing in stem cell technology before it becomes a gold mine.

* Lee Yong-soon Professor emeritus of Seoul National University
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