In accepting the award, Hwang said that his research could ameliorate the health problems that accompany aging, such as failing memories, muscle wasting, cancers, and immune system declines. With stem cell therapies "these might become conditions of the past," declared Hwang. He added that cloned stem cell lines from patients who suffer from chronic debilitating diseases will help researchers identify what goes wrong and point toward cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes. Hwang noted that with cloned stem cells we would be "treating our bodies with our own perfectly matched cells," thus avoiding the problem of immune rejection that bedevils conventional organ and tissue transplants.
Before his presentation, I talked briefly with Hwang and asked him when we might see therapies derived from human embryonic stem cells. Hwang smiled and told me that he expected to start transplanting cells derived from cloned stem cells into patients by the end of next year. He expects that the first patients will be a person with a spinal cord injury and another with Parkinson's disease. He will treat them with cloned cells that will be perfectly matched to those specific patients. Of course, lots can go wrong with the early development of biomedical treatments, and Hwang might be a tad overoptimistic. However, considering his results so far, Hwang may actually succeed in using human embryonic stem cells as a treatment. "I promise that our medical researchers are working non-stop," concluded Hwang.
This is what you can accomplish when you have the freedom to pursue your research - scientists elsewhere in the world are still at the stage of demonstrating successful embryonic stem cell therapies in animal subjects. Yet winning this freedom was a long and arduous process even in comparatively pro-science South Korea. Just imagine where medical research could be by now if not slowed, held back or blocked by unneeded regulations and anti-research legislation. As another scientist notes:
Speaking afterwards, Hwang's American collaborator, Gerald Schatten from the University of Pittsburgh, agreed that cloning lines of diseased stem cells instead of relying on animal research could "vastly accelerate" research on many diseases. However, Schatten noted that creating such cloned human stem cell lines in his home state of Pennsylvania is a felony. "It's amazing, said Schatten, "that we criminalize this work. Imagine if instead of one lab in Korea there were a dozen, or even a hundred labs, fighting to make sure we all live longer and healthier lives."
Unfortunately, we can only imagine this scenario today, because anti-research groups and hostile politicians have reduced the mighty river of medical research to a mere stream in most countries. It continues to mystify me that so many people are so eager to see therapies for age-related diseases blocked.
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