World Stem Cell Foundation Announced

South Korean scientists would create disease-specific lines, sell them abroad for study

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 19, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- South Korean scientists have announced the creation of a World Stem Cell Foundation, to be headquartered at Seoul National University but with tentacles reaching to the United States, the United Kingdom and beyond.

The new venture, unveiled early Wednesday morning, is intended to accelerate international progress in the field by bypassing ethical and regulatory constraints in the United States, according to Dr. Susan Okie, who wrote a perspective article in the Oct. 20 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that was released to coincide with the Seoul announcement.

"Korea is being very entrepreneurial, not just in creating novel stem cells but in how they're marketing and doing business," added Paul Sanberg, director of the Center for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa. "The [Korean] government is putting significant amounts of money into it. I think Korea sees that it can be a global player."

This particular group of scientists, led by Hwang Woo-suk, made headlines earlier this year when they created 11 disease-specific embryonic stem cell lines without using fertilized embryos, and when they successfully cloned human embryonic stem cell lines.

The new foundation will make disease-specific embryonic stem cell lines by somatic-cell nuclear transfer in South Korea. Those cells will then be shipped to paying scientists around the world.

Somatic-cell nuclear transfer, or "research cloning," involves taking a cell from an adult or child (usually with a disease), then using it to replace the nucleus in a donated egg and, from that, creating a new line of cells.

"This particular way of making embryonic stem cells is the one that is the most limited in the U.S.," Okie, a contributing editor to the New England Journal of Medicine, explained. "No one is doing it here." The issue of getting donated eggs is particularly problematic.

U.S. labs are prohibited from producing these stem cell lines using equipment or facilities paid for with government funds. "Not many institutions can afford to do it," Okie explained. Some larger institutions such as Harvard and Stanford are planning their own centers, but they are hobbled by ethical issues surrounding the donation of eggs.

In South Korea, however, Okie added, "they are making these cell lines fast and furious, and it has the potential for more." So U.S. scientists would be able to order the cell lines and work on them, as long as the labs or equipment are not federally funded.

"It would be potentially much less onerous than trying to start a program from scratch. And, if you just want to study cells, you sidestep the whole technical process," Okie said. "In eight states, it's illegal to make embryonic stem cells by this method, but it's legal to import them in every state but South Dakota."

Under the plan, the consortium would be headquartered in Seoul and would operate smaller laboratories in San Francisco and England, each of which would be associated with an in vitro fertilization clinic where donor eggs would be collected.

Three Korean technicians would travel regularly to the satellite labs to perform all the nuclear-transfer procedures.

Gerald Schatten, of the University of Pittsburgh who will chair the foundation's board of trustees, estimated the foundation could produce 100 new disease-specific stem cell lines each year.

According to Okie, U.S. scientists have mixed feelings about the venture.

Some, such as those at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), which is setting up its own center, are unhappy about the centralization of technological expertise that the scheme entails, she said.

"They thought a lot of what you could learn grew out of making the cell lines," she said. UCSF said it would not participate in the World Stem Cell Foundation, but would work towards being able to develop its own lines.

But Okis said George Daley of Harvard Medical School told her that his institution would do both: make its own cell lines and participate in the Korean venture. "It offers opportunities to use more different kinds of embryonic stem cells and learn from them, and do different studies," Okie said.

"The positive side is it allows people to get cell lines made for specific diseases, do it quickly and to do research on it," Sanberg added.

But Okie thought that the combined strengths of the United States and South Korean strengths could create a powerhouse effect.

"The problem with the U.S. is we don't have this technology very much in hand yet, so there are going to be a lot of cell lines from eggs that will fail before we get our expertise up to where the Koreans have it," she said. "Because eggs are such a precious resource and the ethics are so difficult, you don't want a lot of eggs to go to waste."

On the other hand, many people feel the United States has a deeper understanding of biology.

"Ideally, we could cooperate," Okie said.

More information

To learn more about stem cells and stem cell research, head to the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

SOURCES: Susan Okie, M.D., contributing editor, New England Journal of Medicine, Washington, D.C.; Paul R. Sanberg, Ph.D., director, Center for Aging and Brain Repair, University of South Florida College of Medicine, Tampa; Oct. 20, 2005, New England Journal of Medicine
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