February 7, 2009

Cloning Pioneer Dead At 49

China-born stem cell scientist Xiangzhong "Jerry" Yang, best known for successfully creating the first cloned farm animal in the United States, has died after a battle with cancer, the University of Connecticut said Friday.  He was 49.

Yang was first diagnosed with salivary gland cancer in 1996.  He died Thursday at the Brigham Young Women's Center hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, University of Connecticut spokesman David Bauman told AFP.

"He excelled as an embryologist at Cornell University and was hired by the University of Connecticut at Storrs in 1996," the university said in a statement.

A tireless advocate for human embryonic stem cell research, Yang cloned a calf named Amy in 1999, the first farm animal cloned in the United States.  The work came three years after the world's first cloned animal, Dolly the sheep, was created in Scotland.

After Amy, Yang conducted research on the cloning of human embryos, which experts hoped would create stem cells that might one day replace organs, repair tissue damage and reverse degenerative diseases, the University of Connecticut said in a statement on its Web site. 

He died before achieving his dream of cloning of a human embryo for these potentially lifesaving stem cells.

His research helped determine that cloned farm animals were safe for human consumption, and also revealed how old cells can become young again when fused into eggs or embryos stripped of DNA, the university said.

"Jerry was one of the greatest scientists and cloning pioneers of our time," Dr. Robert Lanza, chief science officer at Advanced Cell Technology, a biotech firm that has pursued creating stem cells through cloning, told The Hartford Courant.

"He was a really great man who struggled to his last hours to better the world and to advance the scientific cause."

After escaping starvation in rural China as a baby in a village 300 miles south of Beijing, Yang entered the prestigious Beijing Agricultural University following China's Cultural Revolution.  His stellar test scores earned him a prized opportunity to pursue graduate education in the United States.

Yang is survived by his wife, Xiuchun (Cindy) Tian, a fellow University of Connecticut professor.


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