South Korean scientists have dramatically sped up the creation of human embryonic stem cells, growing 11 new batches that for the first time were a genetic match for injured or sick patients.

It is a major advancement in the quest to grow patients’ own replacement tissue to treat diseases.

The same scientists last year were the first to clone a human embryo. Now they have improved, by more than tenfold, their efficiency at culling these master cells, thus making pursuit of therapeutic cloning more practical.

“I didn’t think they would be at this stage for decades, let alone within a year,” said Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh. He acted as an adviser to the Korean lab in analyzing its data, which was being published Friday in the journal Science.

“This paper will be of major impact,” said stem-cell researcher Dr. Rudolph Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. “The argument that it will not work in humans will not be tenable after this.”

This research is not cloning to make babies. Instead, scientists create test-tube embryos to supply stem cells — the building blocks which give rise to every tissue in the body — that are a genetic match for a particular patient and thus won’t be rejected by the immune system.

If scientists could harness the regenerative power of those stem cells, they might be able to repair damage from spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Parkinson’s and other diseases.

Stem cells also can come from embryos left over in fertility clinics. But these cells would not be a genetic match for any patient.

Any potential therapy is years away from being tested in people. But the new research marks several advances:

Last year’s cloned stem cells were from one healthy woman. This time, the Seoul scientists created stem cells that were genetic matches to each of 11 patients — male and female, as young as age 2 and as old as 56, suffering either spinal cord injuries, diabetes or a genetic immune disease.

Last year, it took attempts with 242 donated human eggs to grow one batch of stem cells. This time, it took an average of 17 eggs per batch and 14 eggs if they were from women younger than 30.

_The researchers eliminated use of mouse “feeder cells” that, until now, have been used to nourish human stem-cell lines, easing concerns about animal contamination.

The research also will add to political sparring over whether to expand government-funded stem cell research in the United States.

More here.