University of Pittsburgh researchers are on the right track in their quest to create usable stem cells from cloned monkey embryos, a federal official who reviewed Pitt's research said Thursday.
"They're close, but no cigar," said John Dahlberg, director of the division of investigative oversight in the Office of Research Integrity.
Federal reviewers this week completed an analysis of a Pitt manuscript intended for publication in the journal Nature that outlines the university's attempt to create the embryonic cell line -- a scientific first that would elevate Pitt's stature to a world cloning authority.
Scientists believe that similarities in the biology of monkeys and humans could make these experiments in monkeys a prelude to similar research in people, possibly leading to cures for diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's.
Pitt officials earlier this week said a team of researchers led by reproductive biologist Gerald Schatten is confident it has generated the cell lines, a feat no other group of scientists has accomplished.
Dahlberg, however, said the stem cell line was abnormal because it had twice the normal number of chromosomes.
"Even if different tissue types could be obtained from it, they would be of no therapeutic value with respect to treating damaged monkey tissues," Dahlberg said.
Dahlberg's office reviewed the manuscript only after being alerted by Schatten that a former collaborator, Jong Hyuk Park, falsified some images that were part of the work, according to Pitt and federal reviewers.
"There is no question that they had been successful," Dahlberg said. "The cell line existed, but the pictures (Park) used were not from the stem cell line. They were from a different one."
As a result, the Pitt team halted the project and began the experiments from scratch, according to Pitt spokeswoman Lisa Rossi.
Rossi said yesterday that Park's misconduct did not affect the researchers' findings, but they chose to redo the experiments without Park's involvement.
She would not say if top-level administrators at Pitt, including medical school dean Dr. Arthur Levine, are confident the researchers will achieve their goal.
"The jury is out until the work is completed and peer-reviewed," Rossi said.
She would not say if the new research has been completed, or when it would be submitted for review by independent scientists, a necessary step to authenticate the findings.
Results of the prior experiments, conducted in 2005, never made it to the hands of independent scientists, but Dahlberg called them "very publishable."
Park, who left Pitt in February 2006 to return to his native South Korea, has had eight stem cell papers retracted by leading scientific journals.
They include a fraudulent 2005 Science paper co-written by Schatten that claimed to have derived stem cells from cloned human embryos.
Since that fraud was uncovered last winter, Schatten, who heads the Pittsburgh Development Center at the Magee-Womens Research Institute, has refused to comment publicly.