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Korean Aims to Succeed Where Hwang Failed (and Faked)

Last week, a bioethics committee advising the South Korean government recommended conditionally approving plans for the first attempt at therapeutic cloning in the country since the work of Woo Suk Hwang was found fraudulent in 2006. Technically known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), therapeutic cloning has the potential to create human embryonic stem cells genetically matched to the adult cell donor. Hwang claimed that he had done it in two papers in Science that were subsequently retracted because of research misconduct and fabricated data.

Since the Hwang setback, several groups around the world have reported progress toward the long-sought goal, but no one has yet reported success. Molecular developmental biologist Hyung Min Chung of the Cha Stem Cell Institute thinks his 200-scientist-strong, $15-million-per-year team can make the breakthrough. He discussed the bioethics committee decision and the progress his institute is making with human embryonic stem cells with ScienceInsider.

Q: Are you happy with the decision of the ethics committee?

Hyung Min Chung: I'm very happy. Since 2005, Korean stem cell research has not progressed. I think this conditional approval of human SCNT stem cell derivation will activate human stem cell research in Korea.

Q: The committee attached four conditions to the approval: One, you must obtain new consent from the egg donors; two, you must focus on laboratory animals [to minimize the use of human material]; three, you must revamp your institutional review board (IRB); and four, you must not raise false expectations by referring to specific diseases [in describing your project]. Are these conditions reasonable, or will they slow down your research?

H.M.C.: The four conditions are acceptable. I have changed the title of my project [to emphasize] the establishment and characterization of human embryonic stem cells. The Korean Ministry for Health suggested new informed consent forms, so we have changed [our forms] for oocyte donations. We have candidates for new IRB members, and we proposed a new IRB system [to the Korean Ministry of Health]. Many Koreans are worried about the use of human oocytes for human embryonic stem [ES] cell research. I have taken great note of the worries and we have strengthened animal research here and we will apply [those results] to human ES cell research.

Q: How soon will you start your research?

H.M.C.: First we need the reconsent [of those who donated] human oocytes for the research. Also, we have openly recruited donations of somatic cells for the SCNT research. After establishing an optimal SCNT protocol, we will apply that to the derivation of SCNT stem cells. I guess we will start this research in 3 months. In Korea, my research center is the only one attempting therapeutic cloning. In the U.S., China, and England, research groups are publishing papers related to therapeutic cloning, but no one has reported complete success. One limitation is the number and quality of donated oocytes. A second factor is that researchers must be skilled in cloning and the cultivation of blastocysts and then in the derivation of stem cells. I think our research center has the three critical factors, and we hope we will be successful in deriving SCNT stem cells. 

Q: This is what Hwang tried to do?

H.M.C.: I don't want to discuss Hwang.

Q: When I spoke to you in 2006, you said Cha had 1000 donated embryos left over from in vitro fertilization and that you planned to derive 100 embryonic stem cell lines. [Editor's Note: This research is not related to therapeutic cloning.] What is the status of that project?

H.M.C.: We now have 31 human embryonic stem cell lines. We want to diversify [the sources] of human embryonic stem [hES] cells. So we have plans for normal hES cell banks and parthenogenic hES cell banks and SCNT cell banks.

Q: Are you having success in this research?

H.M.C.: Yes. In a strategic alliance with Advanced Cell Technology, we have a [therapy based on] retinal pigment epithelial cells [to treat blindness] waiting for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. We expect a decision in August or September of this year. Also, in 2005 we successfully developed a differentiation protocol for cardiovascular cells including cardiac muscle and angiogenic cells. We proved their safety and efficacy on a preclinical basis. In 2 or 3 years, we will apply for [human] clinical applications.