The health authority gave approval Monday to a private university to carry out a project in embryonic stem cells, resuming controversial research that has been shut down for seven years.
Professor Lee Dong-ryul of CHA University in Pocheon, Gyeonggi, 30 miles northeast of Seoul, will lead a team of researchers in a four-year human embryonic stem cell research aimed at treating incurable diseases through the replacement of damaged cells and tissue, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced.
Nearly 600 human eggs will be used for the experiment, 100 of which will be non-frozen.
Until the study wraps up on Dec. 31, 2020, a so-called management committee formed by the ministry will visit the research lab every year to check whether the team abides strict ethical orders from the government, a key condition imposed for the approval.
“The approval will likely enable the science industry to acquire leading technologies in treatment for rare and incurable diseases,” said Lee Dong-uk, head of the Health Ministry’s Health Industry Bureau.
“But given the anxieties about any side effects caused from embryonic stem cell research, [the ministry] will make sure CHA University follows high ethical standards,” Lee added.
Composed of “relevant experts in the field,” the committee will mainly check whether the team gained approval from their subjects for the experiment and whether the school’s ethics committee follows up on their proper use of cells.
The watchdog will also make sure the research team has visual evidence of their proper disposal of all embryos and eggs used in the study, eliminating any possible attempt at human cloning.
Regardless of whether CHA University succeeds its study, the approval is significant on its own because nearly all embryonic stem cell research in Korea was stopped in 2009, when the school got permission for similar research but eventually failed to reach its goal.
Since the late 2000’s, Korea has set the bar high for embryonic stem cell research after the country’s then-most celebrated scientist shocked the nation with a major fraud scandal.
In late 2005, Hwang Woo-suk, one of the world’s leaders in stem cell research, made headlines across the globe for fabricating his stem cell lines and research results from months earlier.
In his third and final trial in 2014, the Supreme Court found Hwang guilty of exaggerating his research findings and embezzling 2 billion won ($1.75 million) in sponsorships, a conviction that carried an 18-month jail term and two years of probation.
Hwang was fired from Seoul National University, his alma mater, where he taught veterinary science.
Hwang now leads the Soam Biotech Research Foundation. But for CHA University, hopes are high.
One pivotal moment for the school’s stem cell research team was in 2014, when it cloned embryonic stem cell lines, using nuclei from the skin cells of two males.
The paper was published in the U.S. science journal Cell Stem Cell.