BEIJING (AP) _ Scientists have taken a step toward cloning a giant panda by growing an embryo that contains a dead animal's genes _ a development China hailed as a possible breakthrough in efforts to save the endangered species.

Scientists from the government-funded Chinese Academy of Sciences grew the embryo by introducing cells from a dead female panda into the egg cells of a Japanese white rabbit, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said Monday.

The embryo was nurtured over 10 months and scientists are now trying to implant it in a host animal's uterus.

``If it works, they will possibly have created the world's first cloned panda,'' Xinhua said.

Although scientists have cloned other large animals, notably the sheep Dolly, the cloning has required repeated efforts _ with many failed pregnancies.

Earlier, China announced plans to try to clone a giant panda within three to five years.

But Chen Dayuan, who leads the government-backed panda cloning project, said scientists now believe they will need less time, Xinhua reported.

It hailed the development as a potentially ``critical and exciting breakthrough'' for saving the species, which is unique to China.

Only about 1,000 pandas live in the wild, with another 100 in zoos. Experts have warned that the animal could become extinct in a couple of dozen years.