SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea will lift a three-year ban on human stem cell research, a presidential advisory committee announced Wednesday.
The government outlawed research in 2006 following a scandal involving disgraced cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk, who claimed to have created stem cells from cloned human embryos.
Hwang scandalized the international scientific community when it emerged that scientific papers outlining his claim relied on faked data.
Hwang, at the time the only South Korean scientist permitted to conduct human stem cell research, was stripped of the license to carry out the controversial studies.
Stem cells are master cells that can be induced to develop into any type of bodily tissue. Scientists say using stem cells in research could lead to revolutionary cures for hard-to-treat diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes.
The National Bioethics Committee, a presidential advisory group, said Wednesday it has decided to allow a Seoul hospital to conduct work on human stem cells.
The committee issued several conditions on Cha Medical Center in exchange for the right to carry out human stem cell research, including hiring more bioethics experts, minimizing the use of human eggs and not citing specific diseases to prevent patients from harboring excessive hopes for cures.
The committee's decision must get final approval from the Health Ministry — considered a formality as there is little chance the ministry will reject any move backed by the presidential advisory group, ministry official Lee Jae-ran said.
Chung Hyung-min, a key researcher at Cha Medical Center, said the hospital welcomed the committee's decision and would abide by the committee's conditions.
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea expressed "serious regret" over the decision, calling human stem cell research "an act debasing human dignity."
"In the course of their research, women will be treated as tools to provide biological materials, and an embryo — a perfect human life — will be engineered and destroyed at the hands of scientists," the group said in a statement.
Hwang, once hailed as a national hero, went into seclusion after he was fired from Seoul National University and tried in connection with the research scandal.
Hwang has sought permission to resume research on cloning human embryos but the Health Ministry rejected his request last August.