Korea sees big future in bio research

published in JoongAng Daily.
by Shin Sung-sik, Wohn Dong-hee 

Perhaps inspired by the high-tech, cutting-edge success of Silicon Valley, the Korean government said yesterday it wants to create a “medical valley” to make Korea a leader in genetics, following the significant advance in stem cell research by a team at Seoul National University. Scientists at the university, led by veterinary professor Hwang Woo-suk, recently announced they had harvested stem cells, the precursors of all other cell tissue, from cloned human embryos.

“If Professor Hwang’s achievement is adapted for practical use, then Korea will become the center of the world in somatic treatment and organ transplants,” Health Minister Kim Hwa-jung said yesterday. “We will establish a medical valley or hospital valley.”
The minister placed a congratulatory telephone call to Mr. Hwang to explain the ministry’s plans. “If we are the first to commercialize this technology, then it will be inevitable for patients with incurable disease to come to Korea,” Mr. Kim said.

Ministry officials said plans include the construction of a medical research village as a middle- to long-term goal. Researchers estimate that it will take about 10 years to commercialize the technology.
Turning aside criticism that a project of such large scope could face ethical dilemmas, Mr. Kim said, “If we do not do it, than some other country will. I see no point in waiting for other countries to get a head start.”

Seoul National’s research with stem cells sidestepped violations of Korea’s bioethics laws, which went into effect on Jan. 29. The laws forbid planting a cloned fertile egg inside a woman’s womb or cloning a human being. It also forbids purchasing female eggs or sperm.
Mr. Hwang’s research was conducted with freely donated eggs, so it did not fall under either category. “We will try as much as possible to make Mr. Hwang’s research legal,” Mr. Kim said.

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