'Long road' for stem cell research
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SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) -- South Korea is making a concerted effort to apply the science of stem-cell research to finding the cure for terminal illnesses, but there is still a long way to go, according to a pioneering South Korean scientist.
Professor Hwang Woo-suk, the scientist who cloned the first human embryo, said it would be wrong to mislead terminally ill patients into believing that the cutting-edge research meant a cure was just around the corner.
South Korea unveiled an ambitious new project last week to make the country a global hub for research into stem cells, including setting up a global bank to store the cells.
Stem cells are the body's master cells, which have the potential to develop into any kind of tissue. Scientists are working to learn how to manipulate them so that cells can be used to treat diseases ranging from diabetes to cancer.
"We've been told that the phone lines at the Seoul National University Hospital get jammed with patients whose expectations have been raised. That is wrong," Hwang told a small group of journalists after the opening of the new stem cell bank.
Hwang's team of South Korean researchers has succeeded in growing stem cells from a piece of skin taken from a patient by fusing it with specific genetic material.
Researchers believe that the cells could one day be used to provide individually tailored tissue and organ transplants, as well as curing maladies such as diabetes and Parkinson's, or to repair severe spinal cord injuries.
"We are still looking ahead to a long road. Our commitment to go on that road is unmistakable, but we have not reached the stage to conduct clinical tests soon, and neither do we have such a plan," he said.
But researchers were now working with actual patients to draw data and samples and would eventually apply their findings in the hospital setting, Hwang said.
"Our work is patient specific," he said, adding working with actual patients came with the added responsibility of trying to accomplish perfection and to be fully open.
Concerns about the ethics of working with human embryonic cells have sparked debate and hampered research in countries such as the U.S., but Hwang has stressed that cloning of human embryonic cells used in his research is purely for medical research and not to clone humans.
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