The Newcastle University scientists said on Thursday that they had produced an early stage embryo cloned from a human cell using nuclear transfer.

Britain, which four years ago became the world's first country to license cloning to create stem cells, is aiming to join South Korea on the leading edge of the research, which many scientists think might lead to new treatments for a range of diseases.

A team of South Korean scientists, who last year were the first to clone a human embryo, announced they had 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.

Stem cell cures

The Newcastle researchers were granted a licence in August by Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. They hope eventually to create insulin-producing cells that could be transplanted into diabetics.

Two of the team, Alison Murdoch and Dr Miodrag Stojkovic, said they were delighted by the Koreans' progress.

"They have shown conclusively that these techniques can be successful in humans," they said. "The promise of new treatments based on stem cell technology is moving nearer to becoming a realistic possibility."

The researchers are not using 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 and which are a genetic match for a particular patient, preventing rejection 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.