Monday, November 29, 2004

A paralyzed South Korean woman is walking again after doctors used stem-cell therapy to replace her damaged spine, researchers in that country say.

At a press conference in Seoul, scientists involved in the case of Hwang Mi-soon, 37, said it was the world’s first published report in which a patient with spinal-cord injuries had been successfully treated with stem cells from umbilical-cord blood.

The patient, they said, had been paralyzed for 20 years as a result of a back injury.

Officials at the South Korean Embassy in the District yesterday confirmed the contents of a wire-service report released Sunday by Agence France-Presse. They said the same story appeared in several Korean newspapers last week.

“But there is some uncertainty about the research. Some people think it was not scientific enough,” one embassy official said.

Several U.S. stem-cell specialists contacted yesterday about the claim said they were not aware of it. One found it credible, but a second said he will remain skeptical until he reads the details in a peer-reviewed report of the human stem-cell research in a medical journal.

The official at the South Korean Embassy said he has been told the study had not been published in a scientific journal.

According to the report, the woman attended the press briefing in Seoul last week. With tears in her eyes, she stood up from her wheelchair and walked back and forth a few paces with the help of a walking frame.

As for the claim, Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president of medical and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) in Worcester, Mass., said: “I think they are consistent with what we believe to be the potential [of stem cells] … it’s what we’ve been trying to convince President Bush and others of.”

ACT is a research firm that’s been on the cutting edge of experimentation in stem-cell therapy and cloning.

Dr. Lanza said ACT itself conducted an experiment three years ago in which researchers used stem cells to cure what was the equivalent of spina bifida in sheep.

“We didn’t have the money to repeat that very costly experiment,” he said.

He further noted that some other American researchers have used embryonic stem cells “to restore mobility to partially paralyzed” rats and mice.

Moral and ethical concerns exist about using embryonic stem cells to replace damaged organs or body parts because the embryos used to create the stem cells have to be destroyed.

Adult stem cells and those found in umbilical-cord blood, however, provide treatment alternatives that usually are not morally objectionable.

Dr. David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, said a Portuguese scientist already has used adult stem cells from the nose to help restore mobility for some two dozen patients who were confined to wheelchairs.

“This is really great news … really exciting stuff,” Dr. Prentice said of the research just reported in South Korea.

But Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, is more wary. He wants to know that the experiment in which a paralyzed woman “dramatically” walked again was disseminated in a forum more scientific and analytical than a press conference.

“Obviously, this needs to be validated, to be replicated by others,” he said.

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