SEOUL South Korea has moved to allow human stem cell research for the first time since about three years ago when its pre-eminent researcher was accused of fraud for his work in the subject, officials said Wednesday.
South Korea had once been considered a global leader in human embryonic stem cell research until review boards said the team lead by scientist Hwang Woo-suk had manipulated key data in its studies on cloning stem cells, sparking a fraud case that shook the global scientific community.
A presidential bioethics committee said it would allow a medical center to conduct research on producing human stem cells through cloning, while imposing strict oversight conditions on the team, health officials said.
"We have never technically banned stem cell research but we have always called for strict guidelines," said a health official who asked not to be named.
Stem cells are the body's master cells, giving rise to all the tissues, organs and blood. Embryonic stem cells are considered the most powerful kinds of stem cells, as they have the potential to give rise to any type of tissue.
Hwang's team was thought to have made two major breakthroughs in the field by cloning stem cells and tailoring them to a specific patient, which raised hopes of generating genetically specific tissue to repair damaged organs or treat diseases such as Alzheimer's.
South Korea canceled Hwang's stem cell research license in March 2006, a few months after a review panel at Seoul National University, where he had been doing research at the time, said it found fraudulent data in his team's reports.
It has not granted a license since then.
Hwang, once hailed as a national hero, has been on trial for the past three years on charges of fraud and violating the country's bioethics laws.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Kim Junghyun; Editing by Valerie Lee)