Regulation of stem cell research in South Korea

Stem cell research is one of the more popular fields of biomedical research in South Korea and has been performed for many years with support from the government. Human embryonic stem cells, human adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are all hot topics of former and current research.

As in most other countries with a tradition for biomedical research, there have been heated debates from the beginning on how to regulate the research. Especially research on human embryonic stem cells have been a subject for a lot of negativity – mainly from religious groupings, but also from certain bioethicists and lawyers. Some of the negativity originates from beliefs that fertilized eggs should be treated as human beings, but also from worries for that the results of the research might lead misuse and affect the human dignity. Other groupings again have focused more on the medical outcome of the research and the possible use for it in treatment of certain diseases. The outcome of these debates resulted in the Bioethics and Safety Act, which took effect on the 1st of January 2005.

The act allowed embryonic stem cell research limitedly, but was after the Hwang research scandal (see later article) in 2006 banned completely. Three years later and after several revisions of the act, the ban was lifted and research on human embryonic stem cells was once again allowed. The Hwang scandal and its effects set South Korea back a bit as one of the leading countries in stem cell research. They are however currently working hard to regain the position.

The Hwang scandal revealed clear weaknesses in the act regulating the research. There are doubts whether the legal framework are enough or appropriate to regulate the research, since the act don’t include all fields of biomedical research and several provisions were unclear. As a result, the Bioethics and Safety Act are still under revision.

According to the act, human cloning, cross-species fertilization and transfer of embryos between two different species are prohibited. Transferring of the nucleus of an animal somatic cell into en enucleated human oocyte and fusion of a human embryo with an animal embryo is also prohibited.
Leftover embryos originally destined for fertilization help can after the preservation period (usually five years) and before the embryological primitive streak appear be used for research on infertility and contraceptive treatments, and research on rare or incurable diseases. Obtainment of consent from providers of sperm or oocytes in production of embryos is also specified in the act, and states that consent must be obtained from all parts.

References:

Jung, K. W. (2010). Regulation of Human Stem Cell Research in South Korea. Stem Cell Rev and Rep 6: 340–344.

Bioethics and Safety Act, Ministry of Government Legislation (2008). Downloaded on the 24th of February 2011 from https://moleg.go.kr/english/korLawEng?pstSeq=47518&brdSeq=33&pageIndex=61.

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About Espen

Student of Biotechnology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
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