S. Korea Lab Aims to Be Global Supplier of Stem Cells (Update2)
Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Researchers in South Korea said they will make the human embryonic stem-cell advances that caused a stir in recent months available to laboratories in the U.S. and elsewhere.
A new center called the World Stem Cell Hub under the direction of Hwang Woo Suk at the Seoul National University Hospital will create and store human embryonic stem cells for use by researchers in the U.S. and other nations, according to the university.
The center ``will open a new chapter in the history in bio- medicine by training new researchers and spurring global collaboration,'' said South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, who attended an opening ceremony today. Roh said the government ``will give its full support for the World Stem Cell Hub to play a central role in global life science research.''
Creation of the center will extend South Korea's global lead in stem-cell research by attracting funds from U.S. foundations seeking to create new treatments for diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other ailments, experts in the field said.
``To my knowledge, the only team that can reliably produce disease-specific and patient-specific human embryonic stem cells is the team in Korea,'' said Shane Smith, science director of the Santa Barbara, California-based Children's Neurobiological Solutions Foundation, in a telephone interview yesterday.
Hwang's research team announced May 19 that it was the first lab to create embryonic stem cells containing genetic material taken from adult patients. The technique, often referred to as therapeutic cloning, may someday allow scientists to grow human tissue custom-tailored in a lab to treat a particular patient.
``The Koreans have decided to make these cell lines available to researchers throughout the world,'' said Robert Goldstein, chief scientific officer of New York-based Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, in a telephone interview from Seoul today. ``We applaud that approach.''
Stem cells growing in a days-old embryo are the foundation for all other types of tissue, such as skin, muscle and nerves. Many scientists say stem cells harvested from embryos might be grown into tissue that can replace diseased organs. Hwang's team created embryonic stem cells to match the genetic signature of a particular person, a step required to avoid rejection of new tissue or organs.
Stem cell banking is needed by medical researchers to ensure the consistency of cell lines over time, Ronald McKay, a scientist at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, said in a telephone interview yesterday.
``It's very high-tech and there are very few people who are familiar with it,'' McKay said.
The National Institutes of Health earlier this month selected Madison, Wisconsin-based WiCell Research Institute to establish the U.S. government's first bank to maintain and distribute stem cells for research. Its inventory is limited because of a U.S. policy restricting the use of federal funds for stem-cell research. The U.K. also has a stem cell bank.
The advances taking place in South Korea have generated concern by opponents who say that extracting stem cells is immoral because embryos are destroyed in the process.
The Korean lab may become an ``offshore haven'' for human embryonic stem cell research that can't be conducted in the U.S., according to a New England Journal of Medicine article released today to coincide with the Seoul announcement.
The article said seven states in the U.S. have banned cloning of stem cells. South Dakota alone forbids the importation of human embryonic stem cells derived elsewhere, the magazine said.
``As the technology progresses, many centers may be able to make stem cells'' that the South Koreans can now produce, said Leonard Zon, head of the stem-cell program at Children's Hospital in Boston, in a telephone interview yesterday.
Years ago, only a single center in the U.S. could process bone marrow used in transplants for leukemia patients, he said. The technology now is widespread. It will probably take a decade for stem-cell technology to become similarly pervasive, Zon said.
The U.S. government will support research with human embryonic stem cells created only before Aug. 7, 2001. Research in the U.S. using embryonic stem cells created after that date is being backed by private organizations such as the diabetes foundation.
Seoul National University said it plans to create stem-cell bank branches in the U.S. and Europe to form a global network. The network will include a foundation chaired by University of Pittsburgh biologist Gerald Schatten, the New England Journal of Medicine reported today.
The bank will make stem cells available to researchers ``free or at cost,'' Schatten said in a telephone interview from Seoul yesterday. The Children's Neurobiological Solutions Foundation plans to provide some of the funding Schatten is seeking.
``If these guys have a technology up and running, it makes a lot of sense to put seed money into them now,'' said Children's Neurobiological Solutions' Smith. He declined to say how much money the foundation might provide.
A lab in South Korea with expertise in growing embryonic stem cells is troubling to some in the field who worry that the technology is advancing outside the U.S. without oversight by U.S. regulators.
``Unfortunately, the U.S. finds itself marginalized as this important development unfolds due to anti-science policies either already in place or threatened by the federal government and several states,'' the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a Washington-based group devoted to advancing stem-cell research, said in a statement yesterday.
To contact the reporter for this story:
Heejin Koo in Seoul at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeffrey Tannenbaum in New York at email@example.com
Last Updated: October 19, 2005 10:26 EDT
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