Asia could emerge as leader in stem cell research; Singapore plans to be world's stem cell provider

Thursday, December 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SINGAPORE (AP) _ In the United States, reports of the first cloned human embryo reignited debate on the touchy subject, but in Asia the issue is less passionate.

Many in the medical community expect lawmakers to allow researchers here to clone human embryos for their stem cells.

Asian Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, along with most governments in the region, say they abhor the thought of cloning embryos to create babies. But some, particularly in Singapore, are open to therapeutic cloning, where embryos are cloned for their stem cells and then destroyed.

Stem cells have the ability to develop into all sorts of specialized body tissue, and the hope is that they can be used as replacement tissue to treat a variety of ailments.

Many scientists believe that it may be necessary to use stem cells from an embryonic clone of the patient to develop that tissue, so that the patient's body won't reject it.

Therapeutic cloning has some opponents in Asia, but it is not the polarizing political issue it is in the United States.

Singapore's Straits Times newspaper called America's reaction to news that a U.S. company had cloned an embryo ``hysterical and irrational.'' The editorial said using stem cells from cloning was as natural as wearing dentures.

The editor of the newspaper's parent company is a member of a government bioethics committee that does not oppose therapeutic cloning so long as there is donor approval and the embryos used are under 14 days old.

Such open attitudes could give Asian researchers an edge over their U.S. counterparts, although that doesn't mean Asia will be the first to master such a difficult challenge. Historically, biomedical breakthroughs have been made primarily in Europe and the United States.

Still, countries like Singapore hope the open environment will attract top scientists from around the world to live and work in this wealthy city-state.

Dr. Christopher Chen, a Singapore-based fertility specialist, said U.S. restrictions on test tube baby research in the 1970s and 1980s gave other countries an early lead in the field. It was Britain that produced the first baby from in vitro fertilization.

``If you make the conditions too tight in the USA and there's a threat of a million-dollar fine and 10 years in jail, well, you can't do work in a clandestine fashion without being found out,'' Chen said. ``It will have to move overseas.''

The U.S. House bill outlawing all human cloning has a penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The Senate has not taken action on the measure.

The United States also has restrictions on the use of stem cells from non-cloned embryos. In August, President George W. Bush said the government would not sanction the destruction of more embryos for their stem cells.

He said scientists could use public money only on research using 64 existing stem cell lines, created from embryos that had already been destroyed.

ES Cell International, a Singapore-based company formed with researchers from Australia's Monash University, has six of the sanctioned stem cell lines.

The company's Australia-based chief executive, Robert Klupacs, said his phone has been ringing off the hook since Bush's announcement.

ES Cell's top researcher in Singapore, Dr. Ariff Bongso, said he hopes to develop a stem cell production facility ``to supply scientists from all over the world.''

``There's now availability in Asia for the lines,'' he said. ``It could give everyone in the region access to compete with the United States and European scientists.''

However, Klupacs said the company has no plans in the short term to begin using clones.

In Japan, Tsutomu Araki, chairman of the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said there is support for the harvesting of stem cells from embryos. But the government has not decided if it will allow embryos to be cloned to produce the cells.

India is home to 10 of the 64 embryonic stem cell lines that are approved for use in U.S. government research. Companies there are waiting until more research is done before sharing their lines.

Despite the edge that some Asian countries may have in the field, not all cultures in the region are open to cloning.

All human cloning is illegal in Hong Kong. And in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, the president said she opposes all cloning and stem cell research.

There are no clear guidelines in other countries in the region, meaning researchers can do what they like.