SoKor Catholic Church funding research on adult stem cells

Seoul, South Korea - The Roman Catholic Church in South Korea said Wednesday it will donate millions of dollars for research into adult stem cells, supported by critics of embryonic stem cell projects as a more humane alternative.

The Archdiocese of Seoul will provide 10 billion won to a committee that will support adult stem cell research.

Most of the funds will come from church coffers, with the remainder raised through donations, said Bishop Yeom Su-jeong, head of the committee.

"We plan to devote ourselves to saving human dignity above everything else ... and raise awareness of respecting lives," Yeom said.

South Korea has been embroiled in debates over stem cell research. It is home to one of the world's leading scientists in the field, Hwang Woo-suk, who has received international renown for cloning human embryos and extracting stem cells.

Stem cells are master cells that can develop into any body tissue, and scientists hope to someday use them to replace and repair diseased and damaged parts of the body.

The cells can also be extracted from adults--but researchers say adult stem cells are less versatile and are sometimes damaged by the health problems of the person from whom they're extracted.

South Korea's government provides massive support for Hwang and his team, which created the world's first cloned human embryos in 2004. Earlier this year, Hwang's team created the first embryonic stem cells that genetically match injured or sick patients.

But the Catholic community has been a fierce opponent of Hwang's research, saying it seriously violates human dignity, likening manipulation of cloned embryos to "murder."

"Keeping and saving lives ... is the mission of the times that our church must accomplish in the face of whatever difficulties," Yeom said.

The Catholic Church also plans to award an annual 300 million won grant to a scientist working in adult stem cell research, the bishop said.

In March, Christian leaders filed a lawsuit at the Constitutional Court claiming a law that allows the use of embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes is unconstitutional. South Korea bans cloning for reproductive reasons but allows licensed scientists to do it for medical research.

Hwang's team, the only group with such a license, has said human cloning is neither the aim of their research nor a possible venture.