South Korea Conditionally Lifts Embryonic Stem Cell Research Ban

Still cautious almost exactly 3 years after the international fraud scandal involving Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, at which time human embryonic stem cell research was halted in South Korea, the country is slowly allowing a return to such research, provided that certain conditions are met.

The National Bioethics Committee has approved a request from scientists at Seoul’s Cha General Hospital to conduct human fetal stem cell research on aborted human fetuses, as long as the scientists meet the following 4 conditions: 1/ the scientists must secure written consent from the donors of the fetuses, 2/ the main focus of the hospital’s research must be conducted on laboratory animals, in an attempt to minimize research on human tissue, 3/ the hospital must establish an internal screening group to check for possible abuse, and 4/ the scientists must remove words and phrasing from the project title that would give people false hope. As an example of the fourth condition, the current title of the research project includes the phrase, "stem cell research which can cure diseases such as Parkinson’s", which should be changed, according to the conditions of the authorization.

As Dr. Roh Jae-kyung, chief of the National Bioethics Committee, explained to the scientists at Cha General Hospital, "This research that we have conditionally approved today is really just the very first step towards a new academic study. Though we hope this will eventually become a ray of hope for those patients with an incurable disease, we want you to refrain from premature or excessive expectations."

It was in May of 2006 that Dr. Hwang Woo-suk was indicted on embezzlement and violations of bioethics laws committed in 2005, after confessing to having falsified his claims that he had cloned the first human embryonic stem cells. As a result of the ensuing scandal, the South Korean government has been cautious not to allow such fiascos to happen again.

According to Dr. Chung Hyung-min, a leading researcher at Cha Hospital, "The decision will help reactivate stem cell research in South Korea. Stem cell research has been done by scientists in Britain and other countries. But there has been no successful case yet, using human eggs."

The Bioethics Committee has rejected a similar request from Dr. Hwang himself, who has also formally petitioned the Committee to be allowed to begin new human stem cell research from aborted human fetuses. Dr. Hwang is still on trial, however, for a number of charges that include fraud, embezzlement and ethical breaches.

(This article is a continuation of the story and related news article on this website, entitled, "South Korea Delays Decision on Cloning", dated February 7, 2009).

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