September 29, 2009
Pet cloning market proves hit or miss
Company closes its doors as competitor expands
By: Timothy Kirn
For The VIN News Service
Will veterinarians soon be seeing the “same” dog again, after its death? Is there a market for cloned canines?
That depends on whom you ask. Until recently, two companies were vying to be first into the market. Now one is going out of business, and the other is building a brand new, $5-million facility in South Korea.
Both had already produced apparently normal, cloned dogs, and each were gambling that there is a market of people willing to shell out $100,000 to $150,000 to keep from having to say goodbye to their beloved canine companions.
BioArts International, Mill Valley, Calif., now shutting its doors, used to say that just by virtue of the sheer number of pets and owners in this country, there had to be a market. Now BioArts CEO Lou Hawthorne says in a statement that the company has become convinced the market is relatively small. Last year, BioArts ran a promotion in which it auctioned off the opportunity to have a dog cloned, and the response was mediocre.
Also, Hawthorne says, his company is being driven out of business by RNL Bio in Seoul, which is undermining the industry by promising a price for cloning that is lower than the cost of doing it.
RNL Bio representatives say their new facility will be able to clone up to about 1,000 dogs a year, and that in time, their specialists will become more proficient and the current price of about $135,000 to $150,000 will come down, perhaps to as low as $50,000 to $80,000.
“Our clients do not think that is expensive,” spokesman Jin Han Hong says. “They love their pets.”
In the meantime, RNL Bio has serviced “three or four” private clients, including a prominent “political leader” from China and two individuals in the United States, he says.
In addition to pets, RNL Bio also has cloned six dogs that now work for South Korean customs and a clone of a Japanese dog famous for its ability to sniff out cancer cells in humans. Three of the customs dogs sniff for drugs at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, and the other three work at regional customs offices. The customs dogs were cloned from a Labrador Retriever renowned for its nose.
One of the dogs at the airport has already made a bust, less than a month after starting, detecting less than an ounce of narcotics in a plastic bag.
Some have said that specialized, working dogs like the customs dogs may be the place where cloning makes sense. Detection dogs are expensive to train, with costs reportedly running as much as $40,000. A large percentage of dogs trained are not successful, however. The percentage that wash out is generally estimated to be 70 percent.
The Korean cloners contend that only 10 percent of dogs cloned from a successful sniffer are unsuccessful.
By contrast, pets are what drew BioArts’s Hawthorne to start cloning animals.
It was in 1997, just after Scotland's Roslin Institute cloned a sheep named Dolly, that Hawthorne, then a part-time filmmaker, got interested. Hawthorne and his mother's boyfriend decided they wanted to clone Hawthorne's mother's dog. And, they were not without resources. Hawthorne's mother's boyfriend, John Sperling, founded the University of Phoenix and he is a billionaire. The dog's name was Missy, and she was a Border Collie-Husky mix.
Hawthorne got acquainted with Texas A&M's Mark Westhusin, Ph.D., and Sperling, who remained anonymous initially, gave him $2.3 million to start what they called the Missyplicity Project.
In 2002, the project resulted in a cloned cat named Carbon Copy. At the same time, other groups cloned horses, mules and cows. But dogs remained problematic. Eventually, the project left Texas A&M for reasons that have not been explained completely. A spokesman for Hawthorne told the VIN News Service that he would return a call to answer that question but never did.
Texas A&M researchers have said that cloning a dog just proved too difficult. Canine reproduction is more complicated than that of other animals, in part, because cloning requires egg harvesting and canine ova need to mature for a few days after they are released from the ovaries. The Texas researchers had a couple of pregnancies, but only one went to term and it was stillborn.
Then, in 2005, a Korean group announced that it had cloned an Afghan Hound born to a surrogate Golden Retriever. The dog was named Snuppy, for Seoul National University puppy.
The fact that the group chose to clone an Afghan, of all the breeds, produced a few snarky comments in news stories and blogs about the Afghan’s intelligence. But the group said they chose the breed because its genetic profile was relatively pure and easy to distinguish.
The Korean group was led by Woo Suk Hwang, a professor at the university who gained notoriety when he claimed to have created human embryonic stem cells through cloning, although it was soon discovered that he had lied about his research.
In 2007, Hawthorne was introduced to Hwang, and he asked Hwang’s group to clone Missy and his BioArts began working with Hwang’s lab.
Hwang was successful in cloning Missy, who had died in 2002, and four progeny have been produced. The veterinary genetics laboratory at the University of California, Davis, examined DNA from the dogs and pronounced the results as “consistent with clones.” That is, they had the same nuclear DNA as Missy, but different mitochondrial DNA.
Despite being clones, the dogs do not look the same and may not even have the same temperament as Missy. According to an article in the The New York Times, the dogs are different sizes and have different coloring. One has a flopped ear, and the others do not. The differences may be due to the fact that they were born at different times. But it is well known that clones do not turn out to be exact copies of their originals.
In the Times article, Hawthorne’s mother, who was the original owner of Missy, says the clones have very different temperaments from the original. For one thing, the original Missy was “robust and completely calm.” But the clones are “delicate and aggressive,” she said. In fact, she does not even own any of the clones. In the time it took to reproduce Missy, she got another "real" dog, she said. The clones live with Hawthorne and two other families.
BioArts and the other company, RNL Bio, have been competing for attention and sniping at each other, almost from the start.
The chief cloning scientist for RNL Bio, Lee Byeong-Chun, came from the laboratory at Seoul National University that was run by Hwang and worked under him. Early on, in an apparent dig at Hwang and Hawthorne, RNL Bio publicly offered to clone Missy for the Missyplicity project since it had not yet been successful.
The two companies also have battled about ownership of a cloning patent. BioArts claims it has an international patent license for cloning that it acquired from Austin, Texas-based Start Licensing, which, in turn, acquired it from the Roslin group in Scotland that cloned Dolly. BioArts and Hawthorne refer to RNL Bio as “black market” cloners.
RNL Bio, in turn, sued Hwang and his Sooam Biotech Research Center, which was providing the cloning services for BioArts, for patent infringement in South Korea, alleging that it holds the patent for Korea from Seoul National University.
That case recently was decided in Hwang’s favor. The court said his process differed significantly from that covered by the university’s patent.
In a letter Hawthorne posted on the Internet to explain why BioArts is leaving the business, he blames RNL Bio for undermining the market by continually suggesting that the price will come down.
“Imagine if Ferrari used the same strategy: ‘Our new sports car lists for $200,000, but will soon be available for $40,000,’” he wrote. “Obviously customers would all wait for the cheaper product and the company would soon run out of cash.”
However, he also noted some troubling aspects of the current technology, aspects that were seized upon by bloggers such as the conservative Family Research Council.
Hawthorne said it takes an average of 12 dogs to produce a clone. The need for so many ova donors and embryo recipients has been one of the main criticisms levied by the Humane Society of the United States, which has been strongly opposed to dog cloning. The dogs are not killed during the process. But both donors and recipients undergo surgical procedures.
And, Hawthorne said there is nothing to stop the cloners from disposing of the dogs once they are finished with them.
In fact, it is not clear where Hawthorne got his number, and the number of dogs needed to make a clone used to be much higher. For Snuppy to be produced, the Seoul National University group used 123 embryo-recipient dogs as surrogate mothers, each of which was implanted with between five and 12 embryos. Of those, only three dogs got pregnant, and only one had a live birth. The paper reporting the feat never said how many donor dogs were used.
In the second paper reporting a cloning, 23 dogs were used as ova donors, and 12 dogs were surrogate mothers, surgically implanted with an average 14 embryos.
A related problem is that the cloning process is not “efficient,” and a few clones of one dog might be produced even though the owners only expect and want one. In one case, five clones were produced from the same dog at the same time, Hawthorne wrote.
Hawthorne even suggested that the reason the center of the dog cloning industry is in Korea is because the Koreans are cavalier about dogs. They eat dogs, he noted in the statement, and they already have an industry for producing cheap, dispensable dogs.
“South Korea has an industry that raises a certain breed of dog as food, resulting in large numbers of these dogs also being available for use in cloning,” he wrote.
Moreover, many of the clones produced by BioArts have had significant problems, Hawthorne said.
One clone was born with greenish-yellow fur when it should have had white fur. Others have been born with skeletal malformations — “generally not crippling though sometimes serious and always worrisome.” Worst, “One clone of a male donor was actually born female (we still have no good explanation for how that happened),” Hawthorne said. He believes the same thing has happened to the RNL group.
The main reason BioArts is leaving the cloning business, however, is that they perceive there is not enough demand.
But others like Dr. Duane Kraemer disagree. A professor at Texas A&M's College of Veterinary Medicine, site of the first successful horse clone, Kraemer said his group receives about a call a week from a dog owner wanting to know about cloning.
But last year, BioArts launched the “Golden Clone Giveaway,” Hawthorne said in his letter. To enter the contest, owners had to author a 500-word essay explaining why their dog should be cloned, and the grand prize was a free clone.
Given the publicity the contest garnered, Hawthorne expected tens of thousands of entries, at the very least. They got 237, he said.
“The paucity of submissions to our giveaway confirmed our belief that the market for dog cloning is a highly specialized niche,” a niche only worth pursuing if there were no competition, he said.
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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