South Korea Aims to Ease Stem-Cell Access

South Korean scientists announce a new consortium aimed at giving researchers wider access to custom-made human embryonic stem-cell lines. The World Stem Cell Hub conflicts with U.S. policies that have limited scientists' access to stem cells in the past.

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And the politics of abortion also affects science, in particular, research on stem cells taken from human embryos. Abortion opponents have pushed for limits on US stem cell research. Other countries have a different approach. Today in South Korea, scientists announced a new consortium that hopes to make these cells available to more researchers than ever before. NPR's Nell Boyce reports on the new World Stem Cell Hub.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Woo-suk Hwang is a South Korean biologist, and he's the undisputed world leader when it comes to making human embryonic stem cells. In 2004, Hwang's lab at Seoul National University was the first to make a human embryo using the same kind of cloning techniques that made Dolly the sheep. His group then took this embryo and extracted stem cells, which are kind of like a blank slate. They can form any tissue in the body. Hwang says scientists from all over the world started calling him.

Dr. WOO-SUK HWANG (South Korean Biologist): After our publication, many stem cell biologist are--want to collaborate with our team and to be supplied our cells.

BOYCE: All of this interest led to an ambitious plan for a World Stem Cell Hub. It would be one-stop shopping for scientists who want easy access to customized stem cells made by Korean technicians. George Daley, a stem cell expert at Harvard Medical School, thinks many researchers will take Hwang up on this offer.

Mr. GEORGE DALEY (Harvard Medical School): There are lots of scientists who see the human embryonic stem cells as great tools for literally moving a patient's disease into the petri dish. However, it takes an enormous amount of resource to actually develop the laboratory skills and program to do that yourself.

BOYCE: The hub will be run by Hwang and based in Seoul. It will also have satellite labs in California and England. These labs will collect eggs from local women, and visiting technicians from Korea will start the process of making stem cells. The cells would then go back to Seoul for processing and distribution. That plan, outlined today in The New England Journal of Medicine, makes some scientists uneasy. They wonder if the hub is an attempt by South Korea to protect its technological head start, and they say key details, like how the cells will be shared, remain unclear. Arnold Kriegstein works on stem cells at the University of California in San Francisco. He says Hwang has been very generous in sharing his technical knowledge with other scientists.

Mr. ARNOLD KRIEGSTEIN (University of California): And that's greatly appreciated by all of us, and to the degree that this World Stem Cell Hub is in that same spirit, I think it's a great idea. But I think we just have to proceed a little bit more cautiously, at least in our point of view, before we really embrace this concept. We need to know much more about it.

BOYCE: He says experts in the United States and the United Kingdom are just getting the approvals and funding they need to make their own customized cells, and Kriegstein thinks they will want to go their own way without relying on a centralized stem cell bank. Still, the hub is getting support from patient advocacy groups. Shane Smith(ph) works for the Children's Neurobiological Solutions Foundation in Santa Barbara, which funds research into pediatric brain diseases. He's thrilled that the Koreans are coming.

Mr. SHANE SMITH (Children's Neurobiological Solutions Foundation): For them to set up shop in California, I think, is a great opportunity for us. The cliche is that the more guns you've got firing at the problem, the better, and I think this is their way to provide the human resources and the technical capacity to researchers in the US and the UK, and at the end of the day, I think that benefits everybody.

BOYCE: The California lab isn't ready yet, but Hwang says the Korean center is open for business. Nell Boyce, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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