SEOUL, South Korea – For the past few decades, Kim Young-ja lived with the thought she would never walk again. Seeking what she sees as a chance for a cure, the 55-year-old South Korean joined hundreds of patients who applied Tuesday to take part in research with a worldwide stem cell center that hopes to cure hard-to-treat diseases with its trailblazing cloning technology.
"I spent the past 22 years in tears and I had no hope," said Kim, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a 1983 traffic accident with a drunken driver.
She is among thousands of people volunteering skin cells to help launch a global center that will grow embryonic stem cells (search) for research. The World Stem Cell Hub (search), led by cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk, aims to one day help those suffering from ailments such as Parkinson's disease or damaged spinal cords and who are willing to offer skin tissue for research.
But the scientists caution that actual treatment for such ailments is years away. Despite the high hopes of those volunteering for research, scientists don't even know for sure if such future treatments will work.
The Seoul-based research hub opened Oct. 19 with the aim of serving as the main center for providing scientists around the world with embryonic stem cells. They are master cells that can grow into all kinds of tissues in the body and are seen as a potential source of replacement tissue for people with a variety of ailments.
On Tuesday, the first day it accepted applications from patients to participate in research, the center received 3,500 responses from patients via the Internet, telephone and fax or in person, said Lim Jong-pil, an official at the center at Seoul National University Hospital. During the day, the center's Web site was inaccessible for hours due to a rush of applications.
No foreigners applied, although the center is open to them, Lim said.
The center, which will have its first branches in Britain and the United States, is expected to provide other scientists room to get around government restrictions on research into embryonic stem cells.
Hwang has garnered worldwide attention for cloning the world's first human embryos and extracting stem cells from them. In May, he announced he had created the world's first embryonic stem cells that genetically match injured or sick patients — a major step in the quest to grow patients' own replacement tissue to treat diseases.
Instead of using embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (search), the Koreans create them from cloned skin cells. That process is favored by some scientists because cloning can create a perfect tissue match for patients.
Critics say such research condones creating human life for laboratory use. Removing stem cells often involves destroying days-old embryos, and the Bush administration has banned federal funding for research on all but a handful of old embryonic stem-cell lines.
Officials at the center cautioned that their research is not the start of experimental treatment. Also, not everyone will be accepted; candidates will be screened. And it may take 10 years or more to develop a treatment.
For those suffering from paralysis and left without any other apparent chance for a cure, the wait already has been too long.
Kim, the woman paralyzed by an accident, lamented not being able to care for herself and her two sons. Her husband was also severely injured in the car crash.
"I could not do anything by myself. The feeling of desperation I had was beyond description," she said.
Lee Ae-ja, who registered Tuesday, can walk only a short way with a cane before her pain becomes too intense. The 64-year-old has used a wheelchair since a virus damaged her nervous system more than a decade ago.
"My only wish is to walk with my legs even for some months before I die," she said as her husband filled out an application.