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Sooam Biotech, a South Korean research lab, is doing just that – cloning dogs using genetic material harvested either while the dog is alive, or within five hours of death. Sooam has been cloning since 2005, and claims to be able to “prolong the companionship with your dog by bringing back the memories that you have with your friend.” For roughly $100,000, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk promises to deliver an exact genetic copy of your dog, so long as he is provided with healthy tissue. The lab claims to be able to clone any dog, regardless of breed, size, or age, and with one in three embryos becoming a healthy puppy. More than 600 dogs have been cloned to date, and at any time, 40-50 cloned dogs are housed in the lab.
Many of us would pay any price to have our beloved dogs with us forever. But before you start harvesting cells from your dog, or considering a second mortgage to pay for a cloning procedure, think carefully. There are good and bad reasons for cloning, and the results may not be exactly what you expect.
In 2014, Dr. Hwang successfully cloned three Tibetan Mastiffs, a breed that is so revered in China; owning a top-quality animal is a status symbol beyond compare. The donor cells were taken from a champion stud from Qinghai who was so outstanding, his owner rejected an offer of five million dollars from a potential purchaser, stating that he could earn almost that amount in just a single breeding season. In fact, in early 2014, a single puppy sold for $2.6 million. Top-notch puppies are rare, and the demand for these dogs far outweighs the supply.
The birth of the cloned Tibetan Mastiffs was an exciting event, to say the least. They were delivered by Caesarean section, from the uterus of a large mixed-breed dog, and once cleaned off, were whimpering and whining to be fed.
This was quite the comeback for Dr. Hwang, who had previously achieved both fame and infamy as a genetic scientist. In 2004, he was elevated to fame when he published articles in the journal “Science” announcing the cloning of a human embryo. He claimed that this would create a limitless source for stem cells, which can be used in treating a myriad of diseases. He was named Korea’s first “Supreme Scientist” by the Ministry of Science and Technology, and was named one of Time Magazine’s “People Who Mattered.” The problem was that Hwang had not, in fact, cloned a human embryo, even after harvesting cells from no fewer than 288 human eggs. The photographs used to support his claim had been faked.
Hwang lost his license to practice research, and was given a two-year prison sentence, which was suspended. He was also left destitute. He apologized publicly, stating that he was blinded by ambition. In a remarkable show of public support, many Korean investors, and even private citizens, continued to support his work with donations of money, and even clothing and food. Because of their support, he was able to start Sooam, and continue his research into animal cloning.
Dr. Hwang used SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer – the same basic process as was used to create Dolly the sheep) to create the first dog clone, Snuppy, an Afghan Hound, born in 2005. He also added some extra steps that were specific to dogs, which he later patented. Snuppy’s surrogate dam was a Labrador Retriever.
I’ve just summed up in a couple of simple sentences something that was actually anything but simple. A bitch’s ovulation cycles are not typically regular, and the eggs are actually viable for cloning for just a few hours. It actually took 123 tries to produce Snuppy. It didn’t look as though this was going to be something that would be practical for pet owners.
In 2007, Dr. Hwang teamed up with Lou Hawthorne of the now defunct Genetics Savings & Clone. Hawthorne had been trying since the late 1990s to clone Missy, a Border Collie. Unfortunately, in 2002, Missy died before what had been named the Missyplicity Project could be completed. They had retained her cellular material, though, and Hwang was able to clone Missy on the first try, producing four puppies.
A year later, Sooam auctioned off the right to the first commercially cloned pet for $155,000. Nina and Edgar Otto of Florida paid that staggering amount to have their Labrador Retriever, Lancelot, cloned. They named the result Lancelot Encore. By 2014, Sooam had refined the process to the point where $100,000 and the willingness to be on a waiting list for about six months could get you a cloned dog. The lab now produces around 200 clones in any given year.
Many customers prefer to be anonymous, but Dr. Philip Dupont, a Louisiana veterinarian, is happy to speak about his experience. He took Melvin, a Catahoula Leopard Dog mix, as a sickly puppy. During the first 24 hours he had Melvin, the dog produced a pound of worms. That was the first time Dr. Dupont thought about having him euthanized – others followed. But ultimately, Melvin grew and flourished, and Dr. Dupont was so happy with him he decided to have him cloned. The results were Henry and Ken, physically identical to Melvin. Dr. Dupont maintains that the pair also have many personality traits in common with Melvin, to the point where he almost finds it disturbing.
Today, Sooam operates three cloning divisions – canine, bovine, and porcine. The canine team does more than just commercial cloning. It also produces transgenic canine clones – dogs that have been genetically engineered to develop specific traits. In 2013, the lab produced a beagle clone predisposed toward Alzheimer’s disease, and has also created 18 more clones from that specific line that have the disease. The goal is to provide pharmaceuticals companies with Alzheimer’s dogs. They are also working on cloning dogs born with diabetes.
As you might suspect, this is where I begin to develop a problem with cloning dogs. I fully understand the importance of scientific research when it comes to treating, and perhaps one day even curing, very serious diseases that affect humans. But the idea of producing animals with conditions that will cause them to suffer troubles me deeply.
In brighter news, Sooam is also working to restore Korea’s Han-woo cow population. This is the rough equivalent of Kobe beef. The Han-woo has been depleted by foot and mouth disease, and with the successful creation of Han-woo clones, the Korean beef industry could be revived.
The porcine division is also working on clones that could help humans. By introducing human genes into cloned pig embryos, it may be possible to create organs for transplant that the human system will not reject.
Dr. Hwang also wants to resume his stem cell research. The problem is that due to the scandal in 2004, the Korean government has declared a ban on human stem cell research. Dr. Hwang believes that this may be a temporary setback.
Dr. Hwang also hopes to be able to clone a wooly mammoth, possibly using an elephant as a surrogate. He also believes that cross-species surrogates could be used to revive endangered species – using goats, for example, as surrogates to Spanish Ibex embryos and dogs as surrogates for giant panda embryos.
It’s a noble idea, I suppose. But where does it stop? Somehow, I’m having visions of Jurassic Park, but maybe that’s just me.
Returning to the subject of cloning pet dogs, in October of 2014, Sooam received a panicked message from a gentleman in France whose dog had died suddenly. Beside himself, the man wanted to know what to do – he loved his dog, and wanted to keep at least “some part of him.”
If you have been wondering how to prepare your dog for cloning, if the unexpected should occur and you have not been able to have living cells harvested, this is where you learn. The man was advised to wrap the dog in cool, wet towels, and place him in the refrigerator – not the freezer, since that can destroy viable cells. Then, he would have a maximum of five days to get to the lab to have the dog cloned. He should have a veterinarian harvest cellular material, and ship it to the lab, labelling it clearly as “for research purposes.” Otherwise, there was a possibility that it could be held up, or even confiscated, in transit.
You can also send biological material to the lab on a sort of “layaway.” This would be material harvested and then stored at the lab. Not everyone can come up with $100,000 right off the bat, but for $3,000, the lab will store the material so that you can have your dog cloned later on once the money is saved up.
What you’re dealing with when it comes to cloning is identical genetic material. In 2014, Sooam cloned two Belgian Malinois Puppies under strict secrecy for a branch of the American Army’s Special Forces – they are not permitted to say which branch, even today. The question that needed to be answered, of course, was whether or not a puppy that is cloned from the cells of an outstanding working dog would be as good at the job as the donor dog. If the dogs did well, then military units and police departments could dispense with unreliable breeding programs, and conceivably have a force of “super dogs” cloned.
The project is still being evaluated. Although the dogs did perform well, they had been subjected to strict conditions regarding raising and training, and in the final analysis, it was deemed more sensible and cost-effective to simply go to one of any number of specialized kennels throughout the world in order to acquire year-old dogs from reliable breeders. That doesn’t necessarily mean the idea is dead in the water, though. The prevailing theory is that whenever dogs are bred naturally, some of the outstanding characteristics can be watered down. Cloning could still eliminate quite a bit of the margin for error, and could also eliminate problems like hip dysplasia, cancer, and poor eyesight that so often end a working dog’s career before his time.
I know that this has been a fairly lengthy discussion about cloning, but I wanted you to have as many facts as possible at your disposal before jumping in and offering my opinion.
I have loved and lost dogs. One loss hit me so hard I actually visited a grief counselor. And yes, I would have given anything, anything at all that I had or ever would have, just to have my dog back for even one day, to hold him one more time and tell him how much I loved him. But I knew that cloning, even supposing I had the money to have it done, was not going to give me MY dog. It would have given me a dog that looked just like him, but wasn’t him, and I think my heart would have broken again every time I looked at the clone.
It took me a while to welcome another dog into my life. Sure, I knew that there were plenty of dogs out there just waiting to be adopted, but I didn’t want just any dog. I wanted the one I lost. I wanted Jake. And I knew that cloning would give me just a replica of sorts. Some people might think that’s the next best thing, but I didn’t. I knew that a clone would look exactly like Jake, but wouldn’t have his memories, his experiences, and his unique temperament.
Sure, I could raise a clone the same way I raised Jake – maybe. Sort of. But I’m not the same person today as I was back in the day when Jake was with me. I’d be taking a puppy that was identical, on the day it was born, to Jake on the day of his birth, and then everything would change.
The other thing, too, that I’d have to consider would be the reality that a genetic copy of Jake would also come programmed to develop the health issues that plagued him later in life. Despite the advances, cloning is still imperfect technology, and again, even if money hadn’t been a concern, I would have hesitated to subject another dog to the likelihood of developing the cancer that ultimately resulted in my needing to have Jake put to sleep. It would have been an act of cruelty, and from my perspective, morally wrong.
So, no. That’s my take on it. You should not clone your dog.
We all like to play “What if,” don’t we? Tossing out hypothetical questions and coming up with answers that sometimes make sense, and other times maybe not so much. My friend Debbie is a big fan of the now-cancelled Netflix series, Hemlock Grove, and so am I. Debbie asked me a while ago, “What if you could have had Jake’s memories all downloaded into a clone? You know, like Dr. Pryce was trying to do? Wouldn’t you want to do that?”
I thought for a bit, and then told her “No. Because then Jake would remember the cancer, and remember dying. He’d probably be scared and confused. And I’m pretty sure that alone would be enough to make him a different dog, not the Jake I knew.”
Of course we can’t download memories. And even if we could, it wouldn’t justify cloning. It wouldn’t be right.
Usually I try to recommend products with a discount or free shipping, or both, but if you’ve lost a beloved friend and want to remember him or her, I’m pretty sure you won’t care about any of that. It’s $17.00, and you do have to pay shipping.
Cloning has come a long way in recent years. In terms of scientific research, it’s providing great advances in the way we treat various diseases, and also holds out hope for preventing the extinction of endangered species. As the technology becomes even more advanced, it has become possible to create viable embryos with fewer eggs, and to implant those embryos into host animals with little danger to what is essentially an “incubator” for the clone.
We would, however, be making a huge mistake if we really believe that cloning will give us back a beloved pet. It generates a replica – a genetic copy – and nothing more. Dr. Philip Dupont is happy with his clones, but I suspect that he would have been equally content had he found naturally-born dogs of the same type as his Melvin.
If you have deep pockets, and you really want to consider having your dog cloned, I’m not here to tell you not to do it. But I can tell you, firmly and unequivocally, that it is not something that I would do. I currently share my life with two Boxers, Janice and Leroy. Neither of them are anything like Jake. A clone of Jake wouldn’t have been anything like him either. So live, love, move on and find other dogs to love. Cloning is just going to set you up for a major disappointment.