Singapore Becoming Hub for Embryonic Stem Cell Research

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - A leading expert in cloning technology is teaming up with an Asian company in a project aimed at making stem cells from human embryos widely available for research use. Dr. Alan Colman, the British researcher who helped produce the world's first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, is next month to join ES Cell International, an Australian company which also operates in Singapore. Based in Singapore, Colman will become ESI's chief scientific officer, the company said in a statement sent in response to queries. ESI chief executive officer Robert Klupacs called the appointment "a major coup." "Alan's contribution will be critical to the company's next stage of development," he added, describing that stage as an "advance to commercialization." Colman's appointment, along with several others announced, "greatly strengthen our ability to convert the amazing potential of human embryonic stem cells into actual therapeutic products, revolutionizing medicine," Klupacs said. Along with the related issue of human cloning, the question of embryonic stem cell research is one of the most pressing and controversial of our time. Supporters say stem cells harvested from early-stage embryos hold the potential to develop life-saving cures for degenerative diseases. The process, however, results in the destruction of the embryo, which otherwise has the potential to become a fully-developed human being. The stem cells are usually obtained from embryos left over after in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment. Many countries are now also considering favorably calls to allow the cloning of human embryos, also to provide stem cells. Proponents label this "therapeutic cloning" on the grounds of the therapeutic benefits that may accrue; pro-lifers call it "destructive," pointing to the resulting death of the embryo. Last August, President Bush said the U.S. government would not sanction the destruction of any more embryos for their stem cells, but he agreed the scientists could use federal funds for research using a limited number of existing stem cell lines (now estimated at around 72), created from embryos that had already been destroyed. ESI, which was set up as a joint venture between private investors in Australia and Singapore's investment promotion agency, is one of 11 organizations worldwide with stem cell lines that are eligible for use in such federally funded research. Its six stem cell lines originate from six embryos produced during IVF treatment undergone by women - reportedly Singaporeans - who consented to their use for this purpose. ESI now aims to increase its stem-cell production a hundred-fold, although the company's chief operating officer, Catriona King, made it clear Thursday that "our strategy at this stage does not include therapeutic cloning." Bioscience hub Colman's move to Singapore is the latest sign that the wealthy city-state is becoming an important center for life sciences. Its government has identified the field as a fourth pillar of its manufacturing sector - along with electronics, chemicals and engineering - and has earmarked $1.6 billion for biomedical research and development. A biomedical research center called Biopolis is expected to open next year. This development and others have prompted predictions that Asia may become an important location for advances in the field. There may also be fewer ethical concerns in the region when it comes to embryonic experimentation. When a U.S. company announced last November that it had cloned the first human embryo for stem cell purposes, reaction in parts of Asia was muted by comparison to that in the West. While many Christians and Muslims hold strong views on bioethical issues, some Asian cultures do not. In Japan, for example, neither embryonic experimentation nor abortion elicits much controversy. An article in Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper this week, commenting on the relative lack of opposition over plans to promote embryonic stem cell research in that country, said: "In Japanese Buddhism or Shintoism, there is no clearly defined doctrine on which stage of the process of development from fertilization to fetus life begins." In Singapore, meanwhile, the English-language daily last November asked in an editorial how the use of embryonic stem cells could be any less natural than wearing dentures, and called Western reaction "hysterical and irrational." A bioethics advisory committee set up by Singapore's government has approved the use of embryos less than 14 days old for research purposes, as well as the cloning of embryos for their stem cells. It is in this relatively open environment that Colman and ESI will operate. Opposition But not everyone in Singapore is comfortable with the direction things are taking. Opposition to the use of embryos for research comes from the Roman Catholic Church, the Catholic Medical Guild of Singapore - which has held prayer services for embryos - and the church-affiliated Family Life Society. The society's executive director, James Wong, said by phone Thursday pro-lifers were not opposed to scientific research aimed at improving people's quality of life. "What we object to is when that involves using embryos, because it's taking a life to try to find cures to save other lives." Many pro-lifers point to research showing the potential benefits of adult stem cells, obtained from bone marrow, umbilical cords and other tissues, and say these could provide an ethical alternative to the destructive use of embryos. "We've got to make people aware that the sanctity of life must be upheld, while encouraging research," Wong said. "But if it affects embryos, it's a no-no for us." Singapore is an ethnic and religious mix of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus. Wong of the Family Life Society said the major religions represented there were "all very pro-life" and inter-faith meetings had been held to discuss stem cells research issues.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow