Debate rages over use of fresh stem cell eggs

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Debate rages over use of fresh stem cell eggs

The use of fresh egg cells in stem cell research, banned in Korea for years, is being hotly debated by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning.

The Bioethics and Safety Act forbids the use of fresh egg cells in stem cell research, more specifically in the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which can be used to create clones for reproductive and therapeutic purposes by removing the nucleus of an egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus of a somatic cell.

The Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning is asking for a policy revision whereby the use of fresh egg cells, voluntarily donated, would be allowed for further development in stem cell research.

The use of fresh eggs in SCNT was made illegal in Korea after 2005, when Hwang Woo-suk, a veterinarian and a former professor at Seoul National University, was found to have fabricated evidence and even bought human eggs for his stem-cell research, which was once regarded as a breakthrough in the science of cloning.

Hwang and his colleague claimed in 2004 to have successfully cloned a human embryo and extracted a stem cell from it.

After the scandal, the Bioethics and Safety Act made revisions to limit the type of egg cells that can be used in SCNT to include frozen eggs nearing their expiration date, immature or abnormal egg cells, eggs that have been used unsuccessfully in external fertilization treatments and frozen afterwards, or eggs donated by a third party, also frozen, that have been rejected by an infertile couple.

Since egg cells can be fertilized within 24 hours after being released from the ovary, leftover eggs are frozen after fertilization treatments, to be used again if the treatment is unsuccessful.

But among some scientists and officials of the Ministry of Future Planning, this regulation is a major hindrance for Korea’s stem cell research community.

“[The Science Ministry] has made both official and unofficial requests to the Health Ministry to allow the use of leftover fresh eggs in researches,” said Yoon Ji-young, an official at the bioscience technology division of the Science Ministry.

Yoon and the supporters of the use of fresh egg cells in stem cell research are concerned that Korea may be lagging behind in stem cell research.

In 2013, for instance, Oregon Health & Science University claimed to have successfully transformed human skin cells into embryonic stem cells that can become any other cell type in the body, promising medical advancement in treating damages and injuries such as Parkinson’s disease as well as cardiac and spinal cord damages.

The university report said it used “premium quality human oocytes,” which many scientists interpret as fresh human egg cells.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare is concerned about the possible societal consequences that may follow a decision to open up the use of fresh egg cells for research purposes.

“It will make things even more difficult for infertile couples if a new measure allows the use of fresh eggs in research,” said Shin Kkotshigye, head of the division of bioethics policy at the Health Ministry.

“The success of an external fertilization can only be determined two weeks after the treatment, meaning the rest of the egg cells not yet used should be frozen just in case.”

“If the hospital starts asking for donations, many infertile couples would have trouble saying no,” said Lee Il-hak, professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of Public Health. “And if the hospital starts paying these couples for their donations, then the existence of a market for fresh egg cells could become a reality in Korea.”

BY SHIN SUNG-SIK, KANG KI-HEON and ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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