Hwang plans world stem cell hub

South Korean scientist envisages the new center as a kind of Jackson Labs for stem cells

By | August 15, 2005

Hwang Woo Suk, the pioneer in cell nuclear transfer and cloning, is developing plans with the government of South Korea to launch an international stem cell research center in his hometown of Seoul later this year.

The project, which is likely to be called the World Stem Cell Hub, is being conceived as something like a stem cell version of The Jackson Laboratory in the United States, said Hwang's close collaborator, Gerald Schatten, from the University of Pittsburgh.

The Jackson Laboratory, based in Bar Harbor, Maine, is a nonprofit institute that supplies researchers around the world with some 2 million mice annually, but also provides training and conducts research.

"What they're envisaging is more than a stem cell bank, but also a collaborative research center…a place where people can go for research retreats and sabbaticals," Schatten told The Scientist. "It's something more like the Jackson Labs…or Cold Spring Harbor, or the Sanger Centre."

In May, Hwang told the Korea Times that the proposal to establish a stem cell center had come among "many international offers" that he had received since his group began publishing their stem cell research. "We are in consultation with the government on it," he said.

In mid-July, he was reported to have told the Yonhap news agency that the facility would be state-run. "As the stem cell bank should exist in the interest of the public, it is desirable to run it at a government level," Agence France-Presse quoted from the Yonhap report.

Schatten, who collaborated with Hwang on the dog cloning effort, said the intention is to set up the hub as an independent body, not necessarily under Seoul National University where Hwang works, but directly under the government.

Detailed plans are still being worked out, but the president of South Korea is expected to make a formal announcement on October 19, he said.

The United Kingdom set up the world's first national stem cell bank in 2002, receiving the first deposits in 2004. In July last year, the US National Institutes of Health announced a plan to grow and distribute cell lines approved by the Bush administration.

The Korean center is not intended to compete with those existing banks, Schatten said. "For example, any lines developed there would be deposited with the UK Stem Cell Bank."

Among the researchers who plan to work with Hwang is Ian Wilmut, cloner of Dolly the sheep. Wilmut said the existence of numerous stem cell banks would be a boon to science. "I cannot imagine that there will be only one stem cell bank in the world," he said. "I suggest that they each have the same role and will indeed cooperate. This will facilitate exchange of cells between different labs, wherever they are in the world."

Wilmut, along with Chris Shaw of King's College London, visited Hwang's group recently. He told The Scientist via E-mail that he hopes to collaborate with the Korean researcher.

"I think that his expertise in deriving stem cells from cloned embryos is exceptional," he said. "I also believe that this methodology can be used to study inherited human diseases, such as motor neuron disease (ALS)."

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