Seoul lifts ban on human stem cell research

Seoul, South Korea – South Korea’s bioethics authority yesterday conditionally lifted a three-year ban on research using cloned human stem cells. The decision will allow scientists to use human embryos after it was banned following the scandal that involved Hwang Woo-suk, the phoney “human cloning pioneer.”

Once a national hero Hwang fell from grace when the international scientific community and Seoul University realised that the results of his stem cells research were doctored to show that he had had cloned healthy human cells from people affected by still incurable diseases.

Seoul’s Cha Medical Center applied for approval last October for research on cloning human embryos and extracting stem cells but its application still has to meet four conditions before getting a green light, namely it must get a written agreement from egg donors (to use aborted human eggs), focus on lab animals to minimise the use of human eggs, set up an internal screening body to check for possible abuse and cheating, and remove any references from the project title that could give people false hope like ‘stem cell research which can cure diseases such as Parkinson's.’

The decision to remove the ban from human stem cell research still requires ministerial approval but chances of rejection are minimal.

In taking this direction South Korea appears to be following US bioethics policy. Among his many measures US President Barack Obama has decided to fund human stem cells, to the tune of billions of dollars.

“The decision will help reactivate stem cell research in South Korea," said Chung Hyung-Min, Cha General Hospital’s leading researcher. “Stem cell research has been done by scientists in Britain and other countries. But there has been no successful case yet, using human eggs,” he explained.

Embryonic stem cell research has been marred by controversy ever since it began, fuelling heated debates over ethics, science and the right to life at every stage.

The Catholic Church’s position on the matter is unequivocal: embryos are human beings for all intents and purposes.

In May 2008 South Korean bishops condemned changes to the country’s bioethics law by parliament which now allows for the reimbursement of the expenses incurred by people who accept to take part in cloning experiments.