SEOUL South Korea's president vowed on Monday a series of regulatory reforms to help regain its place as a stem cell research powerhouse, trying to reclaim momentum five years after a cloning scandal.
President Lee Myung-bak said that by breathing new life into the industry, it could become "core new growth engine" for Asia's fourth biggest economy along the same lines as its lucrative IT sector.
"Just a decade ago, Korea took the lead in stem cell research in the world along with the United States," Lee said in a bi-weekly radio address.
"Unfortunately, there was a disappointing incident, which caused inevitable damage to the entire stem-cell research community in Korea," Lee said, referring to the scandal involving the pre-eminent scientist, Hwang Woo-suk.
South Korea had once been considered a global leader in human embryonic stem cell research until review boards said in 2005 that the team led by Hwang had manipulated key data in its studies on cloning stem cells, sparking a fraud case that shook the global scientific community.
As a result of the scandal, South Korea all but put stem cell research into the deep freeze.
Lee said the lapse had allowed other countries such as the United States, Japan, Britain and China to get the jump on South Korea, depriving the country of valuable revenue.
"While we were faltering in our quest for stem cell research, other nations streamlined their regulations and aggressively expanded their investments in research," he said.
"CORE GROWTH ENGINE"
Lee said the government would invest nearly 100 billion won ($90 million) in stem cell research next year and that it would reform related regulations to make clinical and licensing procedures easier.
He said the reforms would help the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) and other agencies "to ensure that they proactively adapt to the changes in the international environment".
"The government has decided to foster the stem cell industry as a core new growth engine following the footsteps of the IT industry," he said.
Stem cells are the body's master cells and the source of all cells and tissues. Because of their ability to generate different types of cells and multiply and self-renew, scientists hope to harness them to treat a variety of diseases and disorders, including cancer and diabetes, and injuries.
Stem cell research is "very rewarding and significant in that it can give hope to those who suffer from rare and intractable diseases," Lee said.
"In addition, from a business perspective, it can be said to be a high-value-added industry.
"This field is new and offers infinite room for advancement, and how well we manage at this initial stage will make an enormous difference down the road. The country should now set its eyes on emerging as a stem cell powerhouse."
The government will create a national stem cell bank for use to produce, preserve and supply stem cells to various researchers in the country on a stable basis, Lee added.
In July, the KFDA approved stem cell medication in the form of a treatment for heart attack victims for the world's first clinical use.
That Hearticellgram-AMI treatment, developed by FCB-Pharmicell, signaled the country's first salvo to put research in the field back on the frontline.
(Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)