Pinning their hopes on cloning technology to overcome their hard-to-treat diseases, about 3,500 patients applied to participate in research by a global stem cell center on Tuesday, the first day it accepted applications.
The World Stem Cell Hub, led by South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk, aims to help those suffering from ailments such as Parkinson's disease or damaged spinal cords and who are willing to offer their skin tissue for research.
Officials have said it doesn't mean the beginning of clinical tests or treatment, yet applications still surged Tuesday, overloading the center's Web site with requests for information. The center has not set a deadline for applications or decided when trials will begin.
By the end of the day, some 3,500 applications had been received via the Internet, telephone, fax and in person, said Lim Jong-pil, an official at the research center at Seoul National University Hospital. No foreigners submitted applications, although the center is open to them, Lim said.
"I'm pinning all hopes on this," said Lee Kil-no, 52, sitting in his wheelchair at the registration center where dozens of other patients were filling out forms. Lee said he was paralyzed from the chest down after falling five stories at a construction site.
"I believe my condition will improve if I get this treatment. I wish I could walk again," he said.
One researcher said it would be a while before patients start to benefit from the new technology.
"We're now receiving applications only. This doesn't mean treatment will begin immediately," said Kang Sung-keun, a professor at Seoul National University's veterinary college.
Kang declined to predict how long it would be before the new technology becomes available for general patients. But Yim Jung-gi, vice president of the hospital, reportedly said earlier this month it would take five to 10 years.
The stem cell bank opened Oct. 19 with the aim of serving as the main center for providing scientists around the world with embryonic stem cells, seen as a potential source of replacement tissue for people with a variety of ailments.
The bank, which will have its first branches in Britain and the United States, is expected to give other scientists room to get around government restrictions on research into embryonic stem cells.
Many scientists are hoping to accelerate research on embryonic stem cells, master cells that can grow into all the other tissues in the body. However, culling stem cells often involves destroying the days-old embryos harboring them, and the administration of U.S. President George W. Bushfor research on all but a handful of old embryonic stem-cell lines.
South Korean scientist Hwang has received world recognition for cloning the world's first human embryos and extracting stem cells from them., Hwang announced he had created the world's first embryonic stem cells that genetically match injured or sick patients, a major step in the quest to grow patients' own replacement tissue to treat diseases.
Instead of using embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization, the Koreans create them from cloned skin cells. That process is favored by some scientists because cloning can create a perfect tissue match for sick patients. But critics say it condones creating human life for laboratory research.
Earlier in the day, the center's Web site was inaccessible for hours due to a rush of applications. It returned to normal late morning.
"Our Web site was extremely slow for about three hours from 8 a.m. as there were too many access attempts," said Yang Sung-kee, an official in charge of the Web site's management.
Two network experts were on standby in case of attacks on the site from those who oppose cloning technology, but there were no such attempts, Yang said.