Korean cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk is to open a stem-cell "library" in Seoul with satellite laboratories in San Francisco and Oxford where human embryos can be cloned using his technology. The World Stem Cell Foundation will create about 100 stem cell lines annually for stem cell research.
One of the main attractions of Hwang's initiative is bypassing political, regulatory and financial barriers to embryonic stem cell research in the US. According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, a number of prominent US stem cell scientists are enthusiastic about the project because it will enable them to study diseases.
Many researchers believe that human embryonic stem cells may turn out to be even more valuable for studying the mechanisms of disease and for screening experimental drugs than for cell-based therapy, although it is their potential for providing replacements for dead or diseased cells and tissues that has captured the public imagination," writes Dr Susan Okie, a contributing editor of the NEJM.
An article in the on-line magazine Slate by David Plotz explains how South Korea has managed to become the cloning capital of the world without much funding or even a track record in biotech. The key to success is the extraordinary ability of Hwang himself, but some national characteristics help make his work more productive. Koreans are not "preoccupied with moral questions about the beginning of life". Despite an official ban on abortions, it has one of the highest abortion rates in the world.
Korean are "extremely open to medical self-improvement" -- they may have the highest cosmetic surgery rates in the world. The enormous pressure on Korean couples to have their own genetic children has also generated a large IVF industry with extremely high skills. (Plotz speaks of the "Chopstick Theory of Scientific Supremacy" -- that Koreans are skilled at manipulating embryos because of their handiness with chopsticks.) And Koreans work harder. The scientists who work in Hwang's laboratory have boring, repetitive jobs, but work seven days a week without holidays.