A New Push for Human Cloning in Korea

Posted by Pete Shanks on January 20th, 2012

Prof. Park Se-pill

Human cloning has rather drifted out of the conversation lately. The development of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technology has been hailed by some as removing "the ethical roadblocks faced by [human] embryonic stem cells" (hESCs), though that's an oversimplification. But iPS cells have had their own issues, and some scientists are still very interested in using cloning and related approaches to create ESCs.

Recent news reports out of South Korea, however, suggest that cloning may be making a comeback. Several competent scientists there have expressed interest over the years, including the Cha Biotech team and the disgraced Hwang Woo-suk, who remains banned from work with humans. Shockingly, the latest to go public is also willing to discuss human reproductive cloning, although he admits that is not on the near-term agenda.

Professor Park Se-pill, of Jeju University and Mirae Biotech, has announced that he is attempting to produce patient-specific hESC lines by cloning. He is confident, he says, of achieving this breakthrough by 2015. After that, and "when cloning is considered socially acceptable, we can discuss cloning human babies then."

Park is as qualified as anyone to pull this off. In 2000, he derived the third-ever hESC line. He has published numerous papers on human, mouse and cow stem cells, iPS cells and development, including one on deriving hESC lines "from frozen-thawed blastocysts." (His name may appear in English as Se Pill Park, Park Se Pill or Park Se-pill; in Pub Med he is "Park SP.") He also holds patents on some nano-based technology that is supposed to help induce human embryonic stem cells to differentiate in specified directions. He led the team that in 2011 successfully cloned a cow after freezing and thawing the cloned embryo, a step he called essential "to enable the commercialization of cloned embryos production at times whenever we want."

The significance of the freezing / thawing step seems to be related to Korean law in the aftermath of the Hwang Woo-suk scandal. (Park has been in constant communication with Hwang, but never, it seems, as a collaborator.) Human eggs may not be purchased, and can only be used for cloning research with special permission if they are left over from fertility treatment; as a consequence, says Park, "we have to depend on frozen eggs so that the success rate will be very low." The rules on hESC research in general are quite strict — Park himself was denied permission for one research project in 2009, and complains about bureaucratic obstacles. However, his university was certified for stem cell research in November, and has applied for permission to perform cloning.

English-language Korean journals can be somewhat misleading (this report in fact misrepresented the CGS description of the process), but this Q&A is interesting: Park still calls himself Catholic, although he cannot go to church because of his embryo research, which he conducts carefully, he says, and following regulations because of the potential all embryos have to be human. He think science moves faster than social conventions, and that a "decade ago, the idea of cloning was totally unacceptable, but it is different today." It is not entirely clear that he is there referring to human reproductive cloning, but he does see that as a possible goal. His response to a question about "making a human baby with large offspring syndrome" was couched entirely in technical terms about improving the process, with no moral implications whatsoever.

His personal dream is "to see a patient cured with cures I developed." But Park is also in a race — not least with Cha Biotech — and he's out to win:

“I will do it faster than them,” Prof. Park said, noting that Cha Biotech & Diostech have the skills to do it, but not the patents that he has. “Whoever develops it…comes the wealth, comes the power, comes the money,” he said, adding that this breakthrough will bring forth a new era in medical science.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in Egg Retrieval, Other Countries, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Reproductive Cloning, Research Cloning


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