SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea (news - web sites) gave official government backing to ground-breaking research that produced the world's first cloned human embryos.
The health and welfare ministry said a research team led by Hwang Woo-Seok, a Seoul National University professor, has been officially registered as a state institute and its research approved.
"Professor Hwang Woo-Seok's team will now be able to step up its research on stem cells under the government's management system," the ministry said in a statement.
In February 2004, Hwang's cutting edge research produced the first cloned human embryos to generate stem cells for therapeutic purposes.
Stem cells hold the key to potential cures for an array of diseases including diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's and other disorders.
New legislation that took effect here on January 1 requires all bio-technology institutes to register with the government.
The legislation offers government support but also tightens government control in the ethically-sensitive field of human embryos research. South Korea last year banned the cloning of human beings and also bans stem cell research for commercial purposes.
Stem cells are nascent cells that can be coaxed by chemical signals in the body into becoming different kinds of tissue to form almost any part of human organizations.
The dream is one day to use stem cells to grow replacement tissue in a lab dish, such as brain cells, skin, liver, a kidney, that could be used for human transplants.
But religious groups and other critics say research on human embryos and stem cells is unethical by not treating the embryo as a live human being.
"Such ethical issues are too hard for individual scientists to take care of," said an official at the bioethics policy team at the health and welfare ministry official.
"The legislation has significance in that the government itself, not individuals, copes with the ethical issues that could rise from the stem cell research."
In related stem cell research another South Korean medical research team at Chosun University in the southwestern city of Kwangju reported a breakthrough in spinal injury therapy.
A South Korean woman paralyzed for 20 years was able to walk again after researchers repaired her damaged spine using stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood.
Separately, the science and technology ministry said Wednesday it raised by 25 percent year-on-year to 10 billion won (9.5 million dollars) its 2005 budget aimed at supporting the country's biotechnology industry.
The ministry said the budget would be allocated largely to the development of animal organs transplantable for humans and a protein chip which can easily detect diseases.
Seoul officials have touted the developing of new biotechnology as a "next-generation growth engine" for the country.
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