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Stem cell research exhilarates S. Koreans
Updated: 2004-02-14 11:34

Koreans have traditionally cherished Confucian beliefs that their bodies are inherited from ancestors and never are to be tampered with. Cloning jars that tradition.

But South Koreans' quest for international recognition, as well as a yearning for medical cures and a fascination with biotechnology, helps explain why the country's scientists embarked on stem cell research that is controversial at home and abroad.

Many Koreans were exhilarated Friday by the announcement that South Korean researchers have become the first in the world to successfully clone a human embryo, and then collect from it master stem cells in a process that might eventually let patients grow their own replacement tissues.

South Koreans, who transformed a nation ruined by war into one of the globe's richest countries, have an almost obsessive desire to be first, and the stem cell team met expectations.

"This proves that South Koreans are ahead of everyone else in the world in this field," said project leader Moon Shin-yong, acknowledging that competition from overseas spurred on his team. "I hope future South Korean scientists will build on what we have achieved."

Moon and Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University say their technique is not cloning to make babies — which they call "an unpardonable sin" — but to create medicine.

Critics say cloning debases the value of human life. But in South Korea, nationalist pride over the scientists' success is more widespread than criticism of the ethics of their research.

South Korean authorities, who helped fund the research, hailed its medical ramifications. Supporters called the research a crucial first step toward one day alleviating diabetes, Parkinson's and other diseases.

"We welcome the news with tears of hope," said Joo Yoo-hee, 57, who lost a 30-year-old son to a rare muscle disease two years ago. Joo has another son with the same disease, which destroys proteins in muscles.

"I carried my son on my back every day to school. He finished his graduate school and found a job. But not a day passes when I am not worried about his health," she said.

Traditionally, much of the work of looking after patients in South Korea falls on relatives — a burden that makes families especially keen to see radical advances against disease.

But years of research will be required before embryonic stem cell transplants could be considered in people.

"The result of our research proves it's scientifically possible to clone humans, and we are likely to revive controversy over human cloning," said Hwang Yoon-young, dean of Seoul's Hanyang University Medical School and a member of the stem-cell team.

Although criticism of the research has been scarce in South Korea, the People's Coalition for Participatory Democracy, a Seoul civic group, said the research "unveils the naked truth about the irresponsibility of the researchers and related government agencies."

In a statement, the group said the work "destroys the human embryo, confirms the possibility of human cloning and opens the door for damaging human dignity."

There has been no immediate statement on the stem cell research from South Korea's Roman Catholics. By its very nature, Buddhism — another major faith in the country — preaches a kind of detachment from the secular world.

The South Korean parliament passed a law in December banning human cloning but allowing research on human embryo cloning for finding cures for cancer or other diseases. Organ donation from cadavers is also legal. Abortion is illegal but widespread.

One key advantage the South Korean researchers enjoyed was a large supply of fresh human eggs: 242 obtained from 16 volunteers who donated them for the study. Researchers elsewhere normally get leftover eggs from fertility clinics, so they are not only aged but potentially of less than top-notch quality, said stem cell researcher Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh.

The donors' "sacred names will be inscribed in the monument for South Korean biotechnology," Hwang wrote to Chosun Ilbo, the country's biggest newspaper.

But another newspaper, Hankyoreh, said the donors "raised a question about whether South Koreans' ethics on human lives remain low."

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