CORVALLIS, Ore. - An Oregon State University medical ethics researcher, who just returned from delivering an address at the opening of the World Stem Cell Hub in Seoul, South Korea, says that country is aiming to become an international leader in stem cell research.
Courtney Campbell, who chairs OSU's Department of Philosophy, said South Korea's push for prominence in this new medical science arena does raise some concerns. A video presentation at the hub's opening highlighted some of them, he said.
First, the video compared stem cell research to such historic breakthroughs as polio vaccine and Einstein's theory of relativity. Yet scientists have not developed a successful stem cell-based therapy for human disorders. There is the danger, Campbell says, of raising false hopes for cures.
Second, he worries that "in the rush to get therapeutic cures, the World Stem Cell Hub may overlook the moral status of the human embryo.
"It was remarkable to me that the researchers at the conference (Americans and British, as well as Korean) referred to the early human embryo, from which stem cells would be derived, not as an embryo, but as a 'nuclear transfer construct,'" he said.
Third, Campbell worries about the "fusion of political identity and science, as evidenced by the South Korean government's investment of enormous political capital in the success of (stem cell) research."
He saw evidence of this in posters all over Seoul boosting the hub as the "Hope for the World, Dream for Korea," South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun's address to the conference and the pop star status of veterinarian and stem-cell pioneer Woo Suk Hwang. Hwang, who is attended by six bodyguards when he goes abroad, routinely is mobbed by the public and embraces the label of the "Korean Elvis."
"The South Korean Government…sees in biotech, and in stem cell research specifically, a way for South Korea to be not only an international player but an international leader," Campbell said. While Campbell supports public funding of such research, "it can be worrisome when national identity becomes a motivator for scientific study," he said.
Nevertheless, Campbell says he was impressed that the "Korean researchers and audience seemed receptive to keeping ethics in the discussion as stem cell science moves ahead."
Campbell has written and spoken about the institutional ethical responsibilities of tissue banks toward tissue donors and transplant recipients.
Knowing of his work, organizers of the Seoul conference asked him to address the ethical issues of stem cell research.
Campbell is following with interest the creation of what the New England Journal of Medicine calls an "offshore haven" for human embryonic stem cell research.
On Oct. 20, South Korean scientists announced the creation of the World Stem Cell Foundation, headed by Hwang and based at Seoul National University in South Korea, to create stem cell lines as a way to bypass governmental restrictions on stem cell research in countries such as the United States and Canada.