Advances reshape stem cell research

A decade ago, a dream team of researchers from Pittsburgh to South Korea claimed a medical invention that promised to reshape a culture war.

The scientists said they custom-designed stem cells from cloned human embryos. The scientific breakthrough was celebrated around the globe.

Then the bottom fell out.

A scandal erupted over fabricated data, and University of Pittsburgh biologist Gerald Schatten was forced to pull back the findings. Critics cast the 2004 discovery as a farce, a high-profile fraud that forced the journal Science into a rare retraction in January 2006.

Eight years later, the push to use stem cells as a medical treatment continues, but scholars balk at the suggestion that anyone is trying to make genetically identical individuals.

We're not here to clone human beings, for gosh sakes, said John Gearhart, a stem cell researcher and University of Pennsylvania professor in regenerative medicine. Instead, he said, scholars are working to manipulate stem cells to produce heart cells for cardiac patients, brain cells for neurological patients and other custom transplants that could match a person's genetic makeup.

Schatten's work continues at the Magee-Womens Research Institute at Pitt, where university officials cleared him of scientific misconduct, and he remains a vice chairman for research development. He focuses on educating and training physician-scientists and other scientists, a school spokeswoman wrote in a statement. She said Schatten was traveling and was unable to speak with the Tribune-Review.

Researchers have turned the onetime myth of developing stem cells into reality.

At the Oregon Health and Science University, researchers succeeded by blending unfertilized human eggs with body tissue to mold stem cells. Scholars say the cells could let doctors grow customized organs for transplants and other therapies.

The approach engineered by biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov's research team last year in Portland is among two that scientists are using to forge laboratory-made stem cells the so-called master cells that can transform into other body parts without relying on donated human embryos. Federal law tightly controls the use of taxpayer money for embryonic research.

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Advances reshape stem cell research

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