(News Focus) Experts divided over registration of Hwang's stem cell line
By Kim Han-joo
SEOUL, Nov. 16 (Yonhap) -- Experts were divided on Wednesday over whether health authorities' decision to formally register a stem cell line developed by scientist Hwang Woo-suk would restart stem cell research which has been in deep freeze for nearly a decade.
On Tuesday. the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said it will formally register the human embryonic stem cell line, called NT-1, submitted by a research team led by Hwang without concluding whether it was created through cloning or parthenogenesis.
In 2004, the former Seoul National University (SNU) professor created NT-1 and claimed that it was the world's first stem cell batch extracted from cloned human embryos. But the authenticity of his research came under fire after he was discovered to have faked some experimental data and violated ethical regulations.
As part of efforts to restore Hwang's reputation, the KCDC has since mandated local scientists to register all stem cells with the agency for any kind of research.
Hwang had applied several times for the formal registration of NT-1 which he said was developed through somatic cell nuclear transfer, but the KCDC had rejected the application every time.
The KCDC said Tuesday it has failed to conclude whether NT-1 was developed by a process of parthenogenesis, also known as the "virgin birth," citing lack of evidence. This is when an egg develops on its own without fertilization.
Many experts say that the decision would bring various opportunities in the local stem cell research.
"It is meaningful that there will be many opportunities in stem cell research," said Yang Yoon-sun, CEO of stem cell research firm Medipost.
Hwang Soo-suk, a former professor of Seoul National University, walks into the Seoul Central District Court on June 8 2009. (Yonhap file photo)
Other experts, however, are not very optimistic, saying that the decision is only significant if it produces meaningful results in order to catch up with other powerhouses in the field.
"There are over 60 stem cell lines already registered with the KCDC," said another expert on the condition of anonymity. "There would not be much impact in the industry or open a new gateway."
A series of research projects in the field has sparked calls for lowering the high regulatory barrier to allow local scientists to conduct stem cell and regenerative medicine research over the past years as South Korea should revamp research and development (R&D) efforts to catch up with other powerhouses.
Earlier, the government mapped out a three-year comprehensive plan to boost the bio sector by investing more in R&D on stem cells and gene therapy.
The government said it will expand the R&D budget for the development of stem cell and gene therapy, and create funds with 80 billion won (US$67 million) to support bio startups.
"The team will make various efforts such as sharing research results with other local experts in the stem cell field," said Hyun Sang-hwan, another researcher on Hwang's team.
Experts are also divided over whether Hwang, who was once a national hero, would be able to restart his research, saying that Hwang should make a clear statement whether NT-1 was obtained through cloning or parthenogenesis.
In 2006, SNU announced NT-1 was most likely to be produced by the virgin birth method, citing its genetic fingerprint, and refuted Hwang's claim.
A research team at the Harvard Medical School also supported SNU's conclusion and published the result in the scientific journal Cell Stem Cell in 2007.
Since being removed from professorship, Hwang has served as a senior researcher at Sooam Biotech Research Foundation and the head of Hbion, a bio firm specializing in animal cloning and the stem cell cosmetics business.