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South Korea, U.S., Britain enter stem-cell pact

/ Source: The Associated Press

Scientists in South Korea will help their American colleagues — frustrated by U.S. government barriers — create new lines of embryonic stem cells in an unusual partnership in the contentious field, researchers in both countries announced Wednesday.

For the Americans, the new international consortium, which includes Britain, presents another avenue for working around the Bush administration's refusal to fund most of the research. For the South Koreans, the project brings coveted international recognition of their leadership in this budding field.

"I think this effort points out that science is done on a global scale," said Dr. George Daley, of Children's Hospital in Boston, who hopes to participate in the project. "We can establish restrictions here in the United States, but the science moves forward in other countries."

The new World Stem Cell Foundation will be led by pioneering stem cell biologist Hwang Woo-suk at Seoul National University. It will open its first branches in the United States and Britain, Hwang said in an Associated Press interview before the announcement.

"When the use of these stem cells is limited to a particular country, it takes much too long to create technologies usable for the whole humanity," Hwang said. "By creating a global network, we plan to share stem cells created in each country and share information on those stem cells."

The South Koreans are working closely with Dr. Gerald Schatten, a cell biologist at the University of Pittsburgh. Referring to moral misgivings of critics who oppose the destruction of embryos, he compared stem cell science to organ donations, which eventually won widespread acceptance. "We hope that the same thing will happen here," he was quoted as saying in a staff-written commentary released Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Many scientists are aching to accelerate research on embryonic stem cells, which can grow into all the other tissues in the body. The cells are seen as a potential source of replacement tissue for people with a variety of ailments. However, because embryos are destroyed in the process, the Bush administration forbids government funding of the experiments, which are opposed by some religious groups.

The technique favored by the Koreans is even more ethically charged: Instead of using embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization, they create them from cloned skin cells. That process is favored by some scientists because cloning can create a perfect tissue match for sick patients. But critics say it condones creating human life for laboratory research.

Focusing only on the medical potential, Hwang's team became the first to harvest human embryonic stem cells from a cloned embryo last year. Britain also has been successful at human cell cloning and last year set up a stem cell bank.

The Korean-led consortium hopes to create about 100 cell lines per year with genetic defects that cause such diseases as diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, AIDS, Lou Gehrig's, and sickle cell anemia, according to experts familiar with the project. Researchers would then study how these cells develop into diseased tissues.

Right now, well over 125 stem cell lines have been reported around the world, taken mostly from donated embryos. The U.S. government allows funding only for work on old cell lines, developed before President Bush outlined his qualms in August 2001. Several states have legalized research cloning, though, and some congressmen want to loosen the federal restrictions on stem cells.

Some potential collaborators view the new consortium as another challenge to the U.S. government to roll back the rules. The sponsors of a Senate bill to lift the funding ban _ Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa — said the consortium underscores how far the United States is falling behind.

"We shouldn't be playing second fiddle to South Korea or anyone else," Specter said. Still, he said he hoped the consortium would advance progress in the field.

At the start, the South Koreans will dispatch a handful of their researchers to the institutions abroad, where they will carry out the exacting techniques to produce the new cell lines, according to the New England Journal commentary. Once created, those new lines will be shared by the hub and branch sites. The consortium would also make stem cells to order for other researchers.

Funding is expected to come from the government of South Korea, private American donations, and possibly other sources. The South Koreans would not patent the new cell lines but would charge fees on special orders.

A U.S. advocacy group, the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, cheered the arrangement and complained about the government obstacles. "Unfortunately, the U.S. finds itself marginalized," said coalition president Daniel Perry.

However, not everyone was flocking to join. Arnold Kriegstein, director of a stem cell institute at the University of California-San Francisco, wanted more assurances on ethical guidelines and worried about one country — South Korea — exercising too much control.

"The field is too young, and therefore it's too early to start centralizing the technique," he said. "There's more to be gained by having multiple centers doing it independently."