저작권자 © Korea IT Times 무단전재 및 재배포 금지
Alocal biotechnology research team has recently won a U.S. patent for deriving human stem cells from leftover frozen embryos. This is another world first, lifting the domestic industry one level higher and reconfirming its international competitiveness. The latest achievement may be less sensational but less burdensome ethically than Prof. Hwang Woo-suk's method of using replicated embryos, which has yet to be patented in the U.S. It is a welcome refresher for Koreans tired of political wrangling and the economic slump. The new procedure harvests stem cells by thawing frozen embryos left unused from in vitro fertilization, which otherwise are abandoned after five years' storage. As this method uses normally fertilized embryos, their replication is fundamentally impossible, helping to ease ethical concerns. And when the stem cells thus generated will be able to treat Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, the added value will be enormous. The Maria Biotechnology Institute led by Park Se-pill deserves high praises for hard labors. Two stem cell patents have been registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but experts point out techniques' low success rate and high losses of embryos as weaknesses. The Korean method, however, has raised the rate of successful derivation of stem cells by five times or higher than the existing technology. More significantly, it has helped the nation preempt one of the four core technologies to generate stem cells. Park and his team, however, still have a long way to go. An immediate task is how to solve the immunity rejection symptoms that might occur in the course of transplanting stem cells to patients. Addressing this and other problems would require numerous animal and clinical tests _ time and money, in other words. The Ministry of Health and Welfare has provided about $800,000 in subsidies, but it has to increase the financial backing to turn Korea into a stem-cell powerhouse. It is also hard to understand why the Korean Intellectual Property Office delays patenting it. Technological endeavors and accomplishments, however, cannot make Korea a biotech hub, unless accompanied by corresponding attention to ethical debates. The U.S. pro-life legislators are even vetoing federal financing for seemingly harmless approaches by international standards. The scientists need to maintain close consultation with religious circles and share their agony over the dignity of life. It is reassuring in this regard that Korean researchers have recently adopted a charter of ethics. It is time for Korea to take the lead in setting an international agenda to prevent the risks stemming from a possible combination of biotechnology with human selfishness or madness. If the Korean scientists were among the first to open Pandora's box, they should also do their share in creating universal norms to control it.