The South Korean government has established an international stem cell research program with scientists in the United States and Britain. The collaboration gives U.S. researchers a way to overcome funding restrictions imposed by the Bush administration and participate in stem cell research.
The project, called the World Stem Cell Hub, is headquartered at Seoul National University, where researchers led by Hwang Woo-Suk have been in the vanguard of stem cell research. His team was the first to clone human embryos for their stem cells last year.
Stem cells are the basic, undifferentiated cells in embryos that can develop into any kind of tissue. Scientists believe that they have the potential to treat many illnesses by taking over the function of damaged tissue after injection.
According to the English-language newspaper South Korea Herald, the Ministry of Health and Welfare says the new World Stem Cell Hub combines South Korean expertise in stem cell research with broader U.S. and European knowledge of diseases.
The collaboration would operate laboratories in San Francisco and London, where eggs would be collected from women. South Korean researchers would travel regularly to the labs to perform the complex task of creating embryos outside the womb and extracting new stem cell lines American, British, and other scientists could use for experiments on cures.
U.S. stem cell research has lagged because of Bush administration funding restrictions. The government, the country's largest source of research grants, provides money only for study on stem cells obtained before August, 2001, when President Bush announced this restriction. He and many others argue that it is immoral to create embryos for research purposes and recruit women to donate eggs.
Scientists say the old stem cell lines deteriorate and new ones are needed to advance work in this area. Congress is moving ahead with legislation to overturn Mr. Bush's ban and allow new stem cell lines to be created with government money.
The sponsor of such a measure in the Senate is Arlen Specter, a member of the president's Republican Party, who opposes the government prohibition. He told a Senate hearing that he welcomes the South Korean initiative.
"I applaud what they are doing, but I regret that the United States is falling farther behind in world leadership in scientific research generally and specifically on stem cell research," said Mr. Specter.
The director of the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute, John Wagner, echoes Senator Specter's sentiment.
"Clearly I think that the announcement is actually spectacular because at least we are going to be able to move forward," said Mr. Wagner. "Using their technologies that they have pioneered I think is actually tremendous. Clearly I wish it had been generated and moved by the United States, but if we cannot have that, certainly we are very happy that this therapy is going to move forward and will be pushed by some country."
But Democratic Party Senator Mary Landrieu opposes the embryo cloning and stem cell work being done in South Korea.
"It is important in the pursuit of progress to not undermine human dignity, and there is a line that can be drawn between progress and human dignity," she noted. "Creating embryonic stem cells and creating human beings for the purpose of destroying them for science crosses that line in my opinion."
News reports quote South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun as saying that his government will try to resolve the ethical issues surrounding stem cell research so that the scientists can continue their work.