Korean Stem Cell Researcher, Archbishop Differ on Definition of Life

The Korean scientist responsible for several recent significant advances in embryonic stem cell research and the top Korean Catholic leader met to discuss the ethics of therapeutic cloning in a closed-door setting on Wednesday.

While the fifty minute meeting between Professor Hwang Woo-suk, of Seoul National University, and Archbishop Cheong Jin-suk of the Korean Catholic Church, did not change viewpoints or outlooks on the definition of life, it produced a joint statement declaring that "scientists should respect human life in any case."

Therapeutic stem cell research is seen by many as a way to solve presently incurable diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes, while opponents see it as research that destroys human embryos and lives.

“The Catholic Church considers conception as the beginning of human life and the destruction of an embryo as that of a human,” said Archbishop Cheong during the meeting, according to the Korean news source Dong-A Ilbo. "We also define Professor Hwang's embryonic stem cells as human embryos."

The Korean Catholic Church has previously called for the immediate halt of embryonic stem cell research, saying that the methods used are "acts of murder" and a "serious violation of human dignity," according to the Korean Herald.

However, Hwang explained to Dong-A Ilbo that embryonic stem cells harvested by the SNU research team were not alive.

"The stem cells have never undergone the process of conceiving. Also, they cannot develop into life, as there's no possibility of implantation," he said.

Hwang said that the process of obtaining stem cells in his research began with skin cells taken from patients with incurable diseases, using "nucleus transplants of body cells."

Cheong, meanwhile, said that although conventional ethics were difficult to apply to cutting-edge science, it was important for scientists to accept and respect social concerns with an open mind.

The topic of adult stem cell research was also discussed during the meeting. Cheong is in favor of it since embryos are not destroyed in the process. However, Professor Ahn Kyu-ri, a member of the SNU research team who also attended the talk, said that adult stem cells are not viable methods for treating some diseases, according to the Herald.

Still, Kyu-ri said that adult stem cell research could go hand-in-hand with embryonic stem cell research.

"We can stop at any time, embryonic stem cell research into areas where adult stem cells have proven to provide cures," she said to reporters after the meeting, according to the Associated Press.

Cheong told AP that he was somewhat relieved to find out that Hwang's research would be "complementary" to adult stem cell research.

"I will pray for God's blessing for his future research," he said.

After the meeting Hwang expressed to the Archbishop that he would like to meet with him in the future for his advice, "depending on the progress of our research," according to The Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

Last year, Hwang, along with SNU researchers created the world's first cloned embryo. In May of this year, the same research team announced that it had sped up the cloning process tenfold, which some scientists regarded as a major breakthrough.