South Korea Researchers Seek New Ways to Get Embryonic Stem Cells

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 6, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

South Korea Researchers Seek New Ways to Get Embryonic Stem Cells

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by Steven Ertelt Editor
March 6
, 2007

Seoul, South Korea ( — In the wake of an international scandal that saw one of the world’s top embryonic stem cell researchers come under fire for completely faking his studies, scientists in South Korea are now looking at alternative ways of collecting embryonic stem cells that don’t involve the destruction of human life.

Prof. Han Yong-mahn of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology is heading up several government-funded projects to find new methods.

"To weed out ethical debate, we started last November, with financial support from the government, to delve into new technologies for creating human stem cells without using embryos,” Han told the Korea Times.

"They are all in the initial stage. But as the world is rushing to take up these controversy-free stem cell techniques we need to get on the bandwagon ourselves,” Han added.

One approach his team is using is to create cells that act like stem cells by using human sperm and another is to reverse the process cells normally take in going from embryonic to specific cells.

Prof. Geum Dong-ho at Korea University is one of the top scientists looking at the latter idea, called dedifferentiation.

"Many scientists across the globe are focusing on the dedifferentiation technologies and I think tangible results will be produced in five to 10 years,” Geum told the newspaper. "In other words, dedifferentiation is not a far-off dream. It can be realized in the not-so-distant future as shown by animal research of a Japanese team last year."

He referred to a paper Japanese scientists published last year showing how, in animals, they were able to get some cells to move from back into an embryonic-like state.

In the United States, researchers at Wake Forest University have found new embryonic-like stem cells in amniotic fluid.

And in Michigan, scientists at Michigan State University say they have started a new process that could lead to getting the cells without taking human life. Jose Cibelli, a professor of physiology and animal science, says his team has taken the first steps in new research that could lead to obtaining them.

IN September, he reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that his team identified genes that are active only in the human egg.

That, he says, brings them closer to learning how eggs produce embryonic stem cells. If the team can duplicate that process without creating a human embryo — a unique human being — that would result in obtaining the cells without destroying human life.

However, Cibelli says that any potential therapeutic uses resulting from the research are five to 10 years down the road.

He explained that when a cell from another part of the body interacts with a human egg, the egg stops the genes producing that cell and begins the process of developing the human embryo.

If his team can reverse the process and go back to the cells and genes before the embryo develops, it’s essentially "turning these cells back in time."

The team compared the genes to every other cell in the body in order to identify them and then compared them to embryonic stem cells. He told the newspaper his team found 66 genes that could be the ones needed to be successful.