Sunday, July 17, 2005

Stem Cell Research May Be Money Game

After the back-to-back cloning breakthroughs by Seoul National University professor Hwang Woo-suk, Koreans may look at stem cell research as divine work to help hopeless patients.

Experts here argue, however, that the reality might be different because stem cell research is already associated with that most secular of causes - money.

Studies on stem cells fall into two fields: embryonic and adult stem cell experiments, and Korea is at the forefront of both fields thanks to the nation?s top-tier scientists.

In embryonic stem cell research, Hwang is indisputably leading the best team in the world. He has stunned the world by cloning a human embryo and extracting a stem cell line from it in 2003.

The 52-year-old made further headlines in May by announcing that his team cloned 11 stem cell batches, genetically matched to patients with critical diseases or disabilities.

Hailing the breakthroughs, many scientists expected the medical feat to open the door to gene therapy, transplanting developed stem cells back into the patients with degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer?s or Parkinson?s.

But University of Ulsan professor Koo Young-mo points out that the therapeutic cloning research will only help the rich, who have the luxury of being able to pay the high fees.

He contends the cloning research will benefit a handful of millionaires because the operation requires many human eggs, which need to be extracted from women, as well as the technology to develop stem cells into specific organs and to transplant the organs into a human body.

"Let?s assume Hwang or other scientists succeed in creating a miracle cloning therapy in the future,?? Koo said. ``However, the new cure will only save the rich and not all of those suffering from devastating diseases."

He predicted that things will not change drastically, even with the development of new technologies since embryologists cannot mass produce the patient-specific stem cells.

Adult Stem Cell Therapy

Korean scientists have also pioneered studies of adult stem cells, the parent cells capable of growing into other cells and found in the grown bodies or umbilical cord blood.

In particular, Chosun University professor Song Chang-hun and Seoul Cord Bank head Han Hoon surprised the world late last year by successfully treating a female patient with a spinal cord injury via stem cells from umbilical cord blood.

Hwang Mi-soon, whose lower limbs had been paralyzed for 19 years due to a back injury, stood up from her wheelchair and took a few steps with the help of a walking frame.

Some billed the cure as a new-concept treatment for spinal cord injuries, but many are skeptical as the research was not reported to a peer-viewed journal but was announced via a press conference.

In addition, it was just a one-time success that must be replicated to gain the global recognition and to do that Song?s team prepared follow-up clinical tests and applied for government approval for the second-round tests with four spinal cord patients last December.

When the application was under review by the Korea Food Drug Administration (KFDA), the scheme fell apart because the Seoul Cord Bank refused to offer cord blood stem cells.

A doctor who joined the operation on Hwang said the Seoul Cord Bank only focuses on commercialization of the stem cell research rather than making breakthroughs that can heal the spinal cord patients.

"Late last year, Han said it will be the best option to make Hwang walk through another operation to commercialize the umbilical cord blood therapy. He seems intent merely on making money with this research without continuing more clinical tests," he said.

In fact, the Seoul Cord Bank offered stem cells to Hwang for her second therapy in April free of charge while refusing to do so for other four expected patients.

In response to the claim, Han said Chosun University is responsible for the split because it had provoked the Seoul Cord Bank by setting up its own venture start-up that provides umbilical cord blood.

But the four patients who were supposed to receive the cord blood stem cells pinned blame on Han?s side, claiming they attempted to receive money for providing the cells.

"In March, an official of a fund affiliated with the Seoul Cord Bank made a call and asked me to pay 16 million won ($15,000) for stem cells. I protested, and received a cold response," said one of the four patients, who wanted to be identified by his surname Ok.

When contacted, the fund acknowledged that one of its officials placed the call. But it said the call was the official?s mistake because she just tried to notify patients of the exact stem cell price without knowing they were subjects of clinical tests. Subjects of clinical tests don?t have to pay for stem cells.

However, Ok countered that the official knew everything about the stem cell research.

"She said the relationship between the Seoul Cord Bank and Chosun University is over, and then urged me to pay to obtain the harvested stem cells that were specifically for me," Ok said.

The Seoul Cord Bank eventually refused to provide the stem cells to patients and the four people had to find another umbilical cord blood institute, Medipost, for stem cell operations.

The KFDA gave the green light for clinical tests on the four patients last week with the Medipost cells and they are waiting for the stem cell therapy.

By: Kim Tae-gyu - The Korea Times