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updated 5/10/2012 3:25:34 PM ET 2012-05-10T19:25:34

Almost halfway through a $600 million state program supporting stem cell research, eight medical schools around New York are reporting progress on projects such as replicating liver cells and eradicating leukemia cells.

A new report from Associated Medical Schools of New York updates work at the institutions where hundreds of researchers are starting to unravel causes and potential treatments for conditions ranging from autism to heart disease and cancer. Stem cells are self-renewing and have the ability to develop into other types of cells.

The Mount Sinai School of Medicine reported finding a method to transform human skin cells into stem cells and turned differentiated human stem cells into heart cells. Those findings are expected to result in better understanding of how heart disease develops and allow initial testing of new treatments on stem cells before they are used on human subjects.

Dr. Ihor Lemischka, director of the Black Family Stem Cell Institute at Mount Sinai, said recreating heart cells in a dish from a patient with LEOPARD Syndrome, a disease caused by a genetic mutation, has opened ongoing avenues for researching the disease and screening potential drugs.

"It was a major achievement," Lemischka said. The initial work was reported in June 2010 in the journal Nature.

The shared research facility at Mount Sinai supports the work at 80 different labs, Lemischka said.

The Empire State Stem Cell Program was intended to fund projects in early stages, including those that initially have been unable to get federal or private funding. Grants have also been used for capital projects like renovating labs and establishing new stem cell centers.

The Albert Einstein College of Medicine reported replicating liver cells that could help reduce the need for liver transplants using live donors and cadavers.

Dr. Allen Spiegel said 12 new researchers have been hired with state funding at the Bronx school, which also lists anemia, brain disorders, heart disease and obesity among its stem cell research subjects.

"It offers tremendous potential for understanding the causes of and developing better treatments for diseases like cancer, type 1 diabetes and Parkinson's," he said.

Einstein scientists also report advanced work on blood stem cell function. The school has opened a new $25 million research institute funded through private philanthropy. The report said state money has been used by the schools to leverage both federal and private grants.

The 11-year program has awarded nearly $223 million in research grants since 2008, with medical schools awarded $137.5 million. This year's state budget includes $44.8 million, the same as last year and down from the $50 million originally planned.

According to the report, the funding has supported about 400 research and related positions from New York City to Buffalo and Rochester.

The Rochester medical school, with research programs into neurological diseases, cancer, bone repair and musculoskeletal diseases, has been awarded more than $18 million. In one project, researchers said they developed a novel method to target and eradicate leukemia stem cells.

"This research has the potential to have significant impact on the treatment of patients with specific types of leukemia and will be useful in treating lymphoma and multiple myeloma," the report said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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