A bank that will create and supply new lines of embryonic stem cells for research around the world has been opened in Seoul, South Korea.
Stem cell research is controversial
The project is being led by cloning expert Dr Woo Suk Hwang, who has pioneered the development of stem cells tailored to individual patients.
It will serve as the main centre for an international consortium, including the US and the UK.
Critics say using human embryos in research is unnecessary and unethical.
But proponents argue that stem cells taken from embryos offer the best hope of new treatments for a range of diseases and injuries.
Stem cells are the body's master cells, with the ability to become many different adult tissues.
However, embryonic stem cells are the only type which have the ability to turn into any other tissue in the body.
Way round restrictions
The new bank is expected the help scientists from countries like the US get round government restrictions on stem cell research.
The Bush administration bans federal funding for research on all but a handful of old embryonic stem-cell lines.
The first branches of the stem cell bank will open in the UK and the US.
It is hoped to create about 100 cells lines per year with genetic defects that cause such diseases as diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Researchers would then study how these cells develop into diseased tissues.
Dr Hwang told Associated Press: "When the use of these stem cells is limited to a particular country, it takes much too long to create technologies usable for the whole of humanity.
"By creating a global network, we plan to share stem cells created in each country and share information on those stem cells."
Dr Hwang's team was the first in the world to clone human embryos and extract stem cells.
In May, he 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.
Funding is expected to come from the government of South Korea, private American donations, and possibly other sources.
The South Koreans would not patent the new cell lines but would charge fees on special orders.
More than 125 stem cell lines have been reported around the world, taken mostly from donated embryos.
Professor Christopher Higgins, director of the Medical Research Council Clinical Sciences Centre, welcomed the new bank.
He said: "It is a very postive step forward. If we are going to make use of embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes it is very important that there is access for all the researchers who need them."
Professor Higgins said embryonic stem cell therapy offered the prospect of treatments and cures for many non-infectious diseases caused by the the loss of specific types of cell in the body.
However, Matthew O'Gorman, from the charity Life UK, told the BBC News website funding should be switched to alternative forms of stem cell research, which were more ethical, and which had already produced promising results.
He said: "Embryonic stem cell research is about creating tiny human beings to plunder them for cells to serve the needs of others, and then discarding them."