The South Korean researcher who was the first to clone human embryos for the creation of stem cells plans to establish a worldwide stem cell bank to make the technology available to other scientists.
The World Stem Cell Foundation, to be unveiled today in Seoul, intends to produce about 100 new cell lines each year and make them available to scientists, particularly those in the U.S. who have been stymied in their research by federal funding restrictions.
The creation of the stem cell bank offers the possibility of sidestepping the Bush administration's restrictive policies governing the use of human embryos for research purposes.
"I think U.S. scientists will be lining up to request them," said Dr. George Q. Daley, a professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School.
The foundation will be based at Seoul National University and led by Woo Suk Hwang, a professor at the school's College of Veterinary Medicine. Satellite labs will be established in San Francisco and Oxford, England.
So far, Hwang's lab is the only one that has been able to master the delicate procedure of removing DNA from human eggs, replacing it with DNA from sick patients, and coaxing the eggs to develop to the point where stem cells can be harvested.
Researchers will be able to apply to have stem cells created from the DNA of their choice; once developed, the cell lines will be made available for other scientists to use as well.
The foundation's organizers declined to discuss their plans before their news conference in Seoul. Details were provided by scientists who had been briefed on the plan and by a report that was to be published online by the New England Journal of Medicine to coincide with the announcement.
The procedure offered by the South Koreans -- called somatic cell nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning -- is essential for creating stem cells tailored to individuals. It is a key step toward developing medical cures based on stem cells, which have the ability to become virtually any cell in the body. For example, such cells could be used to treat juvenile diabetes by growing replacements for faulty islet cells that fail to make insulin.
Scientists in the U.S. and other countries have been trying to replicate Hwang's achievement, so far without success.
Some U.S. scientists said they were convinced that such work would be occurring in the U.S. if the government hadn't limited the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.
"There's no doubt that the federal policy has chilled research in this area," said Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Tissue Biology at UC San Francisco. "How could it be otherwise if there are threats from the floor of Congress that this procedure might be criminalized?"
The South Korean stem cells could be used in all states except South Dakota, which specifically prohibits the importation of human embryonic stem cell lines, said LeRoy Walters, a senior research scholar at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics, who tracks state laws involving stem cells.
But some scientists said they would not be comfortable working closely with the foundation until it committed itself to ethical guidelines regarding the use of human embryos and the eggs needed to create them.
Hwang's group has pledged not to patent new cell lines, but it does plan to charge fees to recoup costs. In the U.S., it is customary to charge academic researchers up to $5,000 for a stem cell line, though many institutions give them away free.
The South Korean government will pay for the foundation's work in Seoul, and private parties will be asked to subsidize operations in San Francisco.
The San Francisco lab could be eligible to apply for funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the $3-billion state agency established by Proposition 71 to fund stem cell research.
Zach Hall, agency president, said he was eager for California scientists to collaborate with the South Koreans and benefit from their expertise. But when Hwang visited last month to discuss a partnership, Hall demurred.
"We just don't know enough about how it will actually operate for us to have a formal relationship with them," he said.