06/15/2004, 00.00
South Korea
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Government funds Catholic Medical Center for stem cell research

Seoul (AsiaNews) – 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 government's goal is to give the country a point of reference in cellular medicine in North East Asia. The Catholic medical institute has pledged to develop research on adult stem cells to be used in 'therapeutic cloning'. Professor Oh Il-hwan, Director of the Institute, declared that, "Even though the government ,on some occasions, supported the study on embryonic stem cells or cloning of somatic cells, this is the first support for study on adult stem cells. Through this project, I hope to propose alternative answers to ethical and social controversies related to stem cell study conducted at home and abroad."

 The work on adult stem cells sheds new light on the bioethics discussion in the country last February 12, when Professor Hwang Woo-suk of  Seoul National University succeeded in withdrawing stem cells from a cloned human being for the first time. Immediately, religious groups and civilians in Seoul voiced their opposition. "It is very regrettable that people simply regard it as a scientific 'achievement', without thinking about the possible result of the misuse and violation of human life. It is disappointing that the government, who should lead in protecting human life, supports such research," declared Most Reverend Francis Xavier Anh Myong-ok, President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea's Bioethics Committee.

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. Such "therapeutic cloning" is supported by many scientists and by the Catholic Church.

Recognizing the gravity of these ethical questions, the CMC is concentrating on adult stem cell study and has made important initiatives, such as hosting international symposiums on stem cells and opening a cell therapy center, collaborating with medical specialists from diverse areas such as haematology, cardiology and neurology. (MA)

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