Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Once Hopeless Patients Seeking Genetic Miracles

ĪŅ Park Seung-yu, a 34-year-old with a spinal injury that left him paralyzed, becomes excited when he reads articles about Hwang Woo-suk, a genetics professor at Seoul National University. Mr. Park attends every lecture by Mr. Hwang, and he is not the only one. Mr. Hwang's lectures are attended by many who suffer from incurable conditions or diseases.

Last year, Mr. Hwang successfully produced embryonic stem cells from a cloned human embryo, making headlines around the world. It is widely hoped that the cells may one day be used to cure any number of chronic or terminal illnesses.

After the news of the breakthrough, Mr. Park and others who are struggling with their health felt they now faced a brighter future.

Physicians around the country report that patients persistently demand to know when they can undergo stem cell treatments, despite the still-experimental nature of the research.

Mr. Hwang himself has warned against too much optimism.

"From time to time, we hear news about stem cell treatments' successes around the world, but we are only at the stage of confirming the possibility of effective medical uses," the scientist said. "To make the treatments widely accepted, we have to go through a lot of steps. We have to obtain cells of specific organs from stem cells and then conduct animal tests to ensure safety. We also have to do clinical tests. We have a long way to go."

Experts say that Korea's medical technology, with very few exceptions, is far behind that used in the advanced countries. Though the Ministry of Science and Technology says Korean researchers are acclaimed around the world for cloning embryonic stem cells, Korea's adult stem cell research lags behind that of advanced countries.

"Stem cell research has been earthshaking for the medical community, reshaping the paradigm of medical technologies, but the people and the government must provide broad, steady support so Korean scientists to focus on their work," said Professor Oh Il-hwan, head of the Institute of Cell and Gene Therapy of the Catholic Medical Center, a hospital affiliated with the Medical School of the Catholic University of Korea.

Korea plans to invest 10 billion won ($10 million) a year over the next decade in genetics research, but not all the funds will go into the stem cell studies. In contrast, the state of California will invest $300 million a year for the next decade in stem cell research alone.

Korean genetic scientists said what troubles them is not the lack of funding, but the high expectations of the public, and patients in particular.

Seo Wu-hyeon, 63, suffers from multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, leading to fatigue, weakness, numbness and other problems. Mr. Seo said he spent 20 million won seeking stem cell therapy at a clinic in Korea, but his condition deteriorated radically after the treatment.

Mr. Seo filed a suit against the clinic and a supplier of the stem cells. The case was joined by nine other patients who faced similar problems.

A survey by the JoongAng Ilbo conducted in January revealed the difference in how researchers and terminal patients perceive stem cell treatment. Among the 1,030 surveyed participants, genetic scientists specialized in embryonic stem cells said therapeutic use of stem cells will not be possible for at least three years. In contrast, 35 percent of the patients polled said they expected treatment with the therapy within three years.

During the last year, the Korea Food and Drug Administration approved treatment with stem cells for 30 patients. The administration eased the regulations governing clinical uses of stem cells in July to encourage research.

Before the revisions, stem cell transplants in Korea were almost unheard of.

The government body estimated that about 400 cases of autologous stem cell transplants were conducted in Korea last year, because such procedures do not require the administration's approval. The Food and Drug Administration, however, said there had not been enough clinical studies in stem cell techniques to make the therapy widely available.

Researchers who have knowledge in the field are even more prudent. A neural recovery project team at Inha University's medical school gave autologous stem cell transplants to 11 patients suffering from spinal cord injuries. Of the six patients, whose spinal cords were injured less than two weeks before receiving the transplants, five patients showed signs of neural recovery. Yang Seok-ju, a 43-year-old patient who could not even sit on a wheelchair, was able to do push-ups after the therapy.

Park Hyeong-cheon, the leader of the medical research team, however, is cautious in explaining the outcome. "We were not able to clearly prove how the stem cell transplant is related with the recovery," Dr. Park cautioned.

"It has been only about five years since stem cell research has been actively pursued in Korea," said Professor Oh with the Catholic University of Korea's medical school. "But, many patients misunderstand and believe that the therapy is available."