Girl's quest to save mom's sight leads her to clone

Monday, November 26, 2001

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Fifteen-year-old Shana Matthews isn't just sitting back helplessly as a degenerative eye disease slowly takes away her mother's sight, changing her world from light to dark, color to black.

The precocious science whiz from Palm Bay has dedicated herself to saving her mother's sight, winning numerous science fairs for her research and making it her goal to become a doctor.

"How more could you be flattered than by your child wanting to do something like that?" asked Shana's mother, Sandra Matthews.

Shana has also enlisted an unlikely ally in her fight -- a sheep. But this sheep is unlike any other.

It's Dolly, the famous clone. Scientists believe Dolly may hold the key to potential life-saving genetically based treatments that could supplement -- if not surpass -- the chemically based medicines of today.

Harry Griffin, assistant director at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, Scotland, which is Dolly's home, said: "We hope our basic research on cloning and 'reprogramming' of body cells will ultimately benefit patients suffering from a wide range of diseases that may be treatable by cell transplants including diabetes, heart attack, stroke and Parkinson's disease."

Shana traveled from Palm Bay to the Roslin Institute in August after edging out 39 other finalists for the Travel Channel Dream Science Trip.

But the voyage began years ago.

Interest in science

Shana had always been interested in science, entering and winning fairs as early as the second grade. Her projects have ranged from water quality studies to using fermentation to create DNA vaccines.

But her mother's illness -- retinitis pigmentosa -- as well as her father's diabetes, has Shana focusing her skills and interests on the human body.

"That's one reason I want to be a doctor, because when you're dealing with it in your family you have hands-on experience of the emotional side of medical disabilities," she said. "So, it makes me even more determined to be a doctor and work with these genetic disorders."

Last year, Shana entered the Discovery Young Scientist Challenge, a national middle-school science contest sponsored by the Discovery Channel.

Her project on E. coli bacteria, "An Investigation of the Factors Affecting Colony Transformation Efficiency Rates," was among 60,000 entered, and it kept making the cut until 40 finalists were summoned to Washington last October.

There, the bright young minds were given a new challenge: Working in teams, with judges videotaping them to measure their interpersonal skills. They also had to present their solo projects to their peers.

When the winner was announced, it was Shana who took home first place and a $10,000 scholarship.

"I really had no idea I was going to win," she said. "There were a lot of really smart kids there."

She won another contest, with her essay describing her dream science trip -- traveling to the Roslin Institute to meet Dolly.

Research on stem cells

Months passed before Shana and her mother could go to Scotland. In that time, the debate over stem cell research began to rage in the United States and the young scientist was frequently asked to defend it.

A lot of people think stem-cell research is cloning, "but cloning really doesn't serve much of a purpose," she said. "Stem-cell research can do many wonderful things for medicine."

Embryonic stem cells develop into the body's various organs. Researchers hope to learn to use them to create healthy cells that can heal ailing hearts, livers and other organs.

Federal law bans the use of tax dollars for research that destroys embryos, which occurs when stem cells are removed from an embryo. But President Bush has approved a group of existing stem cell lines for use in federally funded research.

Shana toured the institute and met some of the brightest minds in science. The researchers were quite taken with her.

"I wish that I had the energy to do as much as she packs into each day," Griffin said.

Finally, Shana came face to face with Dolly.

"I expected her to be in some fancy security cage behind locked doors, but she was just out in a pasture with her babies," she recalled. "She was really pretty friendly."

Later, as Shana and her mother prepared to leave, "Shana really didn't want to say goodbye," her mother said. "It almost didn't seem real to her. She just kept wanting to touch her.

"When we were saying goodbye, she patted Dolly on the head, looked at me and said, 'I'll never eat lamb again.'"

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