Globalizing research

Across Asia, biotechnology sector thrives

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The privately-funded experiment, which took place at Seoul National University under the guidance of Korean Hwang Woo-suk and American Jose Cibelli, was only the latest in a group of announcements from research institutions in Asia in the last few years, and demonstrates that cloning research is becoming "globalized" like any other commodity.

There are many indigenous efforts underway around Asia to advance genetic technologies. Chinese scientists at various research institutions have reported successful experiments in human cloning, including the production of human-rabbit hybrid embryonic stem cells, according to the claims of Professor Lu Guangxiu at Xiangya Medical College, who told the Wall Street Journal in March of 2002 that researchers at the College had been successfully cloning embryos for two years. China has reportedly been increasing its funding for cloning and other biotechnology research efforts. From 1995 to 2000, it reportedly spent over $180 million and after 2000 has reportedly boosted funding for the next five years to over $600 million. In Japan, scientists at Kyoto University announced in January that they had successfully produced embryonic stem cells domestically for the first time.

Although stem cell research efforts have been in place for several years, the top countries in Asia have only recently begun to regulate the science. Among the largest Asian countries, Japan was an early pioneer in regulating human embryo research, pledging international cooperation on the issue following pronouncements on the subject at a June 1997 meeting of the Group of Eight in Denver, Colorado. Japan subsequently enacted legislation in late 2000 criminalizing the cloning of human embryos for reproductive purposes. China enacted regulations early this year to allow the cloning of human embryos for research, and South Korea enacted similar legislation to allow research days ahead of the February announcement.

Meanwhile, regulation in the United States is still at an impasse. The United States currently has no comprehensive law, and legislation that would have banned both research and reproductive cloning has failed to reach a vote in the Senate after approval in the House of Representatives in July 2001.

A growing number of U.S. legislators seem prepared to support research on therapeutic cloning. Responding to the current administration's policy, which strongly limits research done with federal funds, over 200 members of the House sent a letter to President Bush late last month that called on the administration to ease current restrictions amid fears that other countries, especially in Asia, are overtaking the U.S. in what is seen as a vitally important area of research. Several western scientists have been conducting their research in Asian countries in the past few years, including Cibelli, formerly of Advanced Cell Technology, an early U.S. pioneer of embryo research, as well as Alan Colman, now located in Singapore, one of the scientists who helped create the first mammalian clone, the sheep Dolly.

While an international framework to regulate cloning remains stalled in the United Nations, some Asian countries are offering more stable climates for researchers to pursue their work.