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CHOI Jin-Young

What is Necessary for Promoting Stem Cell Research in Korea?

CHOI Jin-Young

Apr. 3, 2009

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In early 2005, when Korean elementary school students were asked whom they respected the most, the majority named Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk, the recipient of global attention for his claimed breakthroughs in human embryonic stem cell research. The national hero was the subject of a biography for young readers and the government showered him with a 20 billion won research grant. However, since the discovery late in 2005 that Hwang's data for his acclaimed Nature magazine article was bogus, public mistrust has cast embryonic stem cell research into oblivion in Korea.

A stem cell is essentially the basic foundation of the human body. Adult stem cells can only grow into a specific tissue or cell, but embryonic stem cells can be differentiated into all tissues and cells during the growth of embryos into a human being. Thus, if we conduct embryonic stem cell research, we can understand how a cell develops and dies and possibly solve incurable diseases such as cancer, dementia, diabetes and heart disease by removing the cause before it attacks the body.

Accordingly, stem cell research is expected to lead to a fundamental change in the paradigm of traditional medicine, which has mainly focused preventing the spread of a disease and moderating its condition. In particular, if embryonic stem cells can be differentiated into all tissues and cells, they could have more potential than adult stem cell as medical treatment agents. The possibilities make treatment with stem cells an expected gold mine in the biomedical industry.

Commercialization of stem cell research is expected to produce a US$30 billion industry by 2012. The United States, United Kingdom, European Union and Japan are racing to become market makers and to lead change in medical treatment. The US has already initiated a clinical phase II study of adult stem cell drugs that could treat chronic heart diseases and, for the first time in the world, authorized the clinical trial of embryonic stem cell drugs that could treat spinal injuries. The UK has also authorized the clinical trial of embryonic stem cell drugs and Japan has built up the database that evaluates the toxicity and safety of new drugs by using stem cells.

o put Korea in the race, academia and the government need to reinvigorate support for stem cell research. Agreement is needed with all members of society to resume vigorous commitment. Without social agreement, the nation will not be able to move past the national trauma of the Hwang scandal. Biomedical industry opportunities will need to be explained and research safeguards adopted to reach consensus. 

The power of social agreement was seen in 2004 in California, where a US$3 billion ballot initiative was approved for embryonic stem cell research. The Stem Cell Research Support Act, which defied the Bush administration's restrictions on government funding of the research, paved the way for a 10-year project to make California into a global stem cell research area.

efore the Hwang scandal, Korea was thought to be among a handful of nations that had the core technology to make embryonic stem cells. Since then, adult stem cell research has proceeded in Korea but annual funding has been frozen at $25 million since 2006 and embryonic stem cell research has been halted to prevent unethical harvesting of embryos for research. It is time to expand financial support and review long-term development plans, considering the potential commercial gains. 

We also need to move quickly to concentrate stem cell research force in Korea and abroad. Since interdisciplinary support and training is needed, it may be more effective to carry out stem cell research in conjunction with Korean scientists abroad rather than to carry out research exclusively in Korea. In addition, we have to find a way to encourage pharmaceutical companies to cast aside their negative attitude toward stem cell research and join future studies. Their participation is needed, considering the commercial potential.

Finally, members of society such as policymakers, non-governmental organizations and religious circles have to reach a policy consensus on research ethics and other factors which have come to light since the Hwang case. This is imperative, to restore trust in both Korean society and in the international science community toward stem cell research in Korea. Moreover, guidelines are required as a mechanism to handle research issues as they surface.

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