S. Korean to create a stem cell bank

Hwang plans to make about 100 new lines available to scientists around the world


LOS ANGELES -- The South Korean researcher who was the first to clone human embryos for the creation of stem cells plans to establish a worldwide stem cell bank to make the technology available to other scientists.

The World Stem Cell Foundation, set to be unveiled today in Seoul, intends to produce about 100 new cell lines each year and make them available to scientists, particularly those in the United States who have been stymied in their research by federal funding restrictions.

The creation of the stem cell bank offers the possibility of sidestepping the Bush administration's restrictive policies governing the use of human embryos for research purposes.

"I think U.S. scientists will be lining up to request them," said Dr. George Q. Daley, a professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School.

The foundation will be based at Seoul National University and led by Woo Suk Hwang, a professor at the school's College of Veterinary Medicine. Satellite laboratories will be opened in San Francisco and Oxford, England.

Hwang's lab is the only one that has been able to master the delicate art of squeezing DNA out of human eggs, replacing it with DNA from the skin cells of sick patients and coaxing the eggs to develop to the point where stem cells can be harvested.

Researchers will be able to apply to have stem cells created from the DNA of their choice; once developed, the cell lines will be made available for other scientists to use as well.

The foundation's organizers declined to discuss their plans in advance of their news conference in Seoul. Details were provided by scientists who had been briefed on the plan and a report published online by the New England Journal of Medicine to coincide with the announcement.

The procedure offered by the South Koreans - called somatic cell nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning - is essential for creating stem cells tailored to individual patients.

It is a key step toward developing medical cures based on stem cells, which have the ability to become virtually any cell in the body. These cells could be used, for example, to treat juvenile diabetes by growing replacements for faulty islet cells that fail to make insulin.

Scientists in the United States and other countries have been trying to replicate Hwang's achievement, without success.

Some American scientists said they are convinced the advanced work would be happening here if President Bush hadn't limited the use of federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research.

"There's no doubt that the federal policy has chilled research in this area," said Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Tissue Biology at the University of California, San Francisco. "How could it be otherwise if there are threats from the floor of Congress that this procedure might be criminalized?"

The South Korean stem cells could be used in all states except South Dakota, which specifically prohibits the importation of human embryonic stem cell lines, said LeRoy Walters, a senior research scholar at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics, who tracks state laws involving stem cells.

But some scientists said they would not be comfortable working closely with the foundation until it committed to ethical guidelines regarding the use of human embryos and the eggs needed to create them.

"We'd have to be assured that the highest standards are followed," Kriegstein said.

The foundation intends to send a team from its headquarters in Seoul to the two satellite labs to perform the key DNA transfer work. Local scientists will turn the resulting embryos into stem cells, which will be sent to South Korea for quality control tests before being distributed to researchers.

Demand for new cell lines is sure to outpace supply, and it is not clear how the foundation will prioritize among applications from scientists around the world.

Karen Kaplan writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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