01/12/2005, 00.00
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S Korea approves cloning research

Seoul (AsiaNews/Agencies) - South Korea gave official government backing on Wednesday to ground-breaking research that produced the world's first cloned human embryos. The health and welfare ministry said a research team led by Hwang Woo-Seok, a Seoul National University professor, has been officially registered as a state institute and its research approved.

"Professor Hwang Woo-Seok's team will now be able to step up its research on stem cells under the government's management system," the ministry said in a statement.

In February 2004, Professor Hwang's cutting edge research produced the first cloned human embryos to generate stem cells for therapeutic purposes. Stem cells hold the key to potential cures for an array of diseases including diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's and other disorders.

The legislation offers government support but also tightens government control in the ethically-sensitive field of human embryos research. South Korea last year banned reproductive human cloning but left room for stem-cell research for curing diseases. Stem cells are nascent cells that can be coaxed by chemical signals in the body into becoming different kinds of tissue to form almost any part of human organisations.

The ethical problem underlying cloning involves the reproduction of a human embryo in order to extract a stem cell line which can be used to repair organs like the heart or brain. The human embryo is destroyed during, or after, the process. Using adult stems cells or cells taken from the umbilical cord does not involve the destruction of human life, and has had much more probability of therapeutic success.

In June 2004, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare has established a grant of 12 million won (10 million US dollars) for six years to the Institute of Cell and Gene Therapy of the Catholic Medical Center (CMC), a hospital of affiliated with the Medical School of the Catholic University of Korea. The CMC has pledged to develop research on adult stem cells to be used in 'therapeutic cloning'. It was the first Korean government support for study on adult stem cells.

Religious groups and other critics say research on human embryos and stem cells is unethical by not treating the embryo as a live human being. John Paul II indicated the defence of life in all its stages, including the embryo and the family, in his annual speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, last 10 January. "The Church's position – he said - supported by reason and science, is clear: the human embryo is a subject identical to the human being which will be born at the term of its development. Consequently whatever violates the integrity and the dignity of the embryo is ethically inadmissible. Similarly, any form of scientific research which treats the embryo merely as a laboratory specimen is unworthy of man." (MA)

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