Just as it was about to issue a long-awaited decision, the National Bioethics Committee of South Korea has decided to delay its decision over whether or not to allow the Seoul-based CHA Medical Center to proceed with research that involves human cloning.
Stem cell scientists throughout the world still recall the scandal that developed as a result of Dr. Hwang Woo-suk’s claims in 2005 that he had created cloned human embryos from human embryonic stem cells, only to discover by 2006 that such claims were fraudulent, even by Dr. Hwang’s own admission, at which time Dr. Hwang was fired from his research position at the Seoul National University and banned by the National Bioethics Committee from continuing his work. Consequently, ever since 2006, all research on cloned human embryos has been officially halted in South Korea.
Entirely independent of Dr. Hwang, the CHA Medical Center had applied for authorization to conduct somatic cell nuclear transfer, the same technique that was used to create Dolly the Sheep in 1996. Unlike with Dolly the Sheep, however, the CHA Medical Center had hoped to be able to conduct somatic cell nuclear transfer for purposes of so-called therapeutic cloning, even though it is the exact same technique that is used in reproductive cloning. From the embryonic stem cells that would be created by the cloned human embryos, scientists would then hope to be able to conduct research for the development of medical therapies.
Proponents of therapeutic cloning claim that it would allow for patient-specific stem cell therapies without the risk of immune rejection. However, critics of the method point out that patient-specific stem cell therapies without the risk of immune rejection already exist, and in fact have already been developed from adult stem cells and are already being used to treat patients in clinics around the world. Similarly, immune-privileged “universal donor” stem cells, which have no risk of immune rejection and which offer a viable alternative to patient-specific therapies, have also already been developed from adult stem cells and are also already being used as successful therapies in clinics around the world. Such adult stem cell therapies do not pose any of the numerous risks that embryonic stem cells pose, not the least of which is the risk of teratoma (tumor) formation, which is, by definition the primary requirement by which embryonic and all other pluripotent stem cells are identified. Contrary to popular misconception, there are a number of valid scientific and medical reasons for avoiding embryonic stem cells, and these reasons are entirely separate from the ethical, religious and political controversies that remain inextricably entangled in the deliberate destruction of human embryos. Ethics and politics aside, embryonic stem cells remain highly problematic in the laboratory purely for scientific reasons, which is why they have never advanced to the clinical stage. By sharp contrast, however, adult stem cells behave very differently from embryonic stem cells, which is why so many different types of adult stem cells have already been successfully developed into clinical therapies, whereas embryonic stem cells never have.
In delaying its verdict, the National Bioethics Committee of South Korea has required the CHA Medical Center to submit a more detailed proposal for its research. In turn, the CHA Medical Center intends to reapply in two or three months.