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S. Koreans Report Stem-Cell Production Advance


Vicki Page receives treatment for here cerebral palsy, but there is no cure. Many scientists believe stem cell research may eventually lead to one, and in South Korea, researchers are reporting a major advance in producing stem cells for medical research. Scientists say they've come up with a more efficient method for making new cells. In the US, embryonic stem cells are at the center of a political and ethical debate. NPR's Richard Harris reports.


Embryonic stem cells are highly valued because they can be coaxed into becoming all kinds of cells--nerve cells that might be useful for spinal cord injuries, pancreatic cells to treat diabetes or anything in between. Researchers at Seoul National University are world leaders in making these stem cells from human eggs, or oocytes. And Gerald Schatten at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine says his Korean colleagues are now reporting a big advance.

Dr. GERALD SCHATTEN (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine): The number of oocytes needed has dropped from a total of 242 needed last year to around 16 or so needed per line now.

HARRIS: Doctors can usually collect 16 eggs from a woman during a single procedure, so it's now practical to make a stem cell line with relative ease. In the case of the Korean study, 11 people provided skin cells from which the scientists extracted DNA. That DNA was then injected into the donated eggs. Some of those eggs started dividing and producing embryonic stem cells. Schatten says the next step will be to get those stem cells to grow into specific tissues.

Dr. SCHATTEN: It's important to know whether you can make a pure population of, say, insulin-producing cells for diabetics or of motor neurons, or glial cells, for spinal cord injury patients.

HARRIS: Science magazine is publishing the details. The hopes for this kind of research are now higher than ever, but the work is still beset with ethical questions. Mildred Cho at Stanford University says one critical issue has to do with the women who volunteer to donate their eggs.

Dr. MILDRED CHO (Stanford University): Egg donors do face individual medical risks and those risks include some things as serious as infertility or even death in very rare occasions. And so there is and should be a lot of concern about people volunteering to give eggs for any research procedure when they themselves will not benefit at all.

HARRIS: The solution here is to make sure donors are well informed of the risks and to make sure they aren't being coerced by family members or anyone else to participate. Dr. Cho says the Korean study passed a series of ethical tests there and it would probably have been approved by similar review boards in California. More broadly, she says, the choice of words used to describe this research is critical. Scientists need to be sure they don't promise too much.

Dr. CHO: We're suggesting that instead of using the term `therapeutic cloning,' for example, which is the most commonly used term to describe that procedure, that we use terms that don't include the word `therapy,' such as simply `stem cell research' or `research cloning.'

HARRIS: But the word `cloning' has its own problems. In a survey last year, the Johns Hopkins Center for Genetics and Public Policy asked Americans a simple question: Do you support cloning human embryos for research? Center Director Kathy Hudson says the answer was overwhelmingly no. On the other hand, she says most institutions, from church groups to government advisory committees, are on the record saying that cloning to produce stem cells for research is ethically OK.

Ms. KATHY HUDSON (Johns Hopkins Center for Genetics and Public Policy): Anyone who's gone through the trouble of putting together a policy statement has thought very deeply about what the potential benefits and harms are. And our survey results of the general public suggest that the public has not thought as carefully through those issues as yet.

HARRIS: The poll found very little support for cloning in order to produce babies. Hudson says that potential, though, creates a sense of unease about this whole line of research. Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.