Impact Lab


Subscribe Now to Our Free Email Newsletter
August 12th, 2018 at 10:47 am

Inside the very big, very controversial business of dog cloning

IMG_8234

Recently born clones share an incubator.

Barbra Streisand is not alone. At a South Korean laboratory, a once-disgraced doctor is replicating hundreds of deceased pets for the rich and famous. It’s made for more than a few questions of bioethics.

The surgeon is a showman. Scrubbed in and surrounded by his surgical team, a lavalier mike clipped to his mask, he gestures broadly as he describes the C-section he is about to perform to a handful of rapt students watching from behind a plexiglass wall. Still narrating, he steps over to a steel operating table where the expectant mother is stretched out, fully anesthetized. All but her lower stomach is discreetly covered by a crisp green cloth. The surgeon makes a quick incision in her belly. His assistants tug gingerly on clamps that pull back the flaps of tissue on either side of the cut. The surgeon slips two gloved fingers inside the widening hole, then his entire hand. An EKG monitor shows the mother’s heart beating in steady pulses.

Just like that the baby’s head pops out, followed by its tiny body. Nurses soak up fluids filling its mouth so the tyke can breathe. The surgeon cuts the umbilical cord. After some tender shaking, the little one moves his head and starts to cry. Looking triumphant, the surgeon holds up the newborn for the students to see—a baby boy that isn’t given a name but a number: 1108

That’s because he is a clone.

This is not some sci-fi, futuristic scenario—it’s happening right now, in Seoul, South Korea. The newborn, however, is not a human. It’s a puppy, a breed called Central Asian Ovcharka. He weighs only a few ounces, and his fur, slickened by fluid, is covered in black and white splotches, like a miniature Holstein. His eyes are not yet open. When he cries, it’s a barely perceptible squeak. The surgeon, Hwang Woo-suk, unclips his microphone and holds it close to little 1108’s mouth, amplifying its mewling over a loudspeaker so the students can hear its plaintive, what-the-hell-just-happened whine—eeee, eeee, eeee.

Hwang’s assistants, meanwhile, are busy suturing up the mother, a Labrador-sized mutt with shaggy yellow fur who was specially bred to give birth to and nurse cloned puppies. “She’s a mixed breed,” explains Jae Woong Wang, a canine-reproduction researcher who works for Hwang here at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, the world’s first company dedicated to cloning dogs. “We breed the surrogate moms to be docile and gentle.”

IMG_8235

A surgical assistant preps a surrogate to receive a cloned embryo.

IMG_8236

Clone 1108 mews into Hwang Woo-suk’s microphone right after being born.

IL-Header-Communicating-with-the-Future

It has been more than two decades since the world collectively freaked out over the birth of Dolly the Sheep, the first-ever mammal cloned from an adult cell. The media jumped on the fear implicit in creating genetic replicas of living beings: Time featured a close-up of two sheep on its cover, accompanied by the headline “Will There Ever Be Another You?” Jurassic Park, meanwhile, was terrifying audiences with cloned T. rexes and velociraptors that broke free from their creators and ran amok, eating lawyers and terrorizing small children. But over the years, despite all the Jurassic sequels, the issue faded from the public imagination, eclipsed by the rapid pace of scientific and technological change. In an age of gene editing, synthetic biology, and artificial intelligence, our dread of cloning now seems almost quaint, an anxiety from a simpler, less foreboding time.

Then, last March, Barbra Streisand came out as a cloner. In an interview with Variety, the singer let slip that her two Coton de Tulear puppies, Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett, are actually clones of her beloved dog Samantha, who died last year. The puppies, she said, were cloned from cells taken from “Sammie’s” mouth and stomach by ViaGen Pets, a pet-cloning company based in Texas that charges $50,000 for the service. “I was so devastated by the loss of my dear Samantha, after 14 years together, that I just wanted to keep her with me in some way,” Streisand explained in a New York Times opinion piece, after the news provoked an outcry from animal-rights advocates. “It was easier to let Sammie go if I knew that I could keep some part of her alive, something that came from her DNA.”

Cloning pets is “like The Handmaid’s Tale,” says one ethicist. “It’s a canine version of reproductive machines.”

Ethicists from the White House to the Vatican have long debated the morality of cloning. Do we have the right to bioengineer a copy of a living creature, especially given the pain and suffering that the process requires? It can take a dozen or more embryos to produce a single healthy dog. Along the way, the surrogate mothers may be treated with hormones that, over time, can be dangerous, and many of the babies are miscarried, born dead, or deformed. When a dog was first cloned, in 2005—a scientific achievement that Time hailed as one of the breakthrough inventions of the year—it took more than 100 borrowed wombs, and more than 1,000 embryos. “Surrogate mothers are a little bit like The Handmaid’s Tale,” says Jessica Pierce, an ethicist and dog expert who teaches at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado. “It’s a canine version of reproductive machines.”

Yet here in the operating room at Sooam, everyone is all smiles—especially the veterinarian representing the customer who paid for Clone 1108. A slender man whose employer is Middle Eastern royalty, he stands in scrubs next to Dr. Hwang, posing for photos with the newborn pup. It’s a moment that has become almost as routine as it is lucrative for Sooam: over the past decade, the company has cloned more than 1,000 dogs, at up to $100,000 per birth. “Yes, cloning has become a business,” says Wang. If a dog owner provides DNA from a deceased pet quickly enough—usually within five days of its death—Sooam promises a speedy replacement. “If the cells from the dead dog are not compromised,” Wang explains, “we guarantee you will get a dog within five months.”

It’s fitting, perhaps, that the man at the center of the controversy over canine cloning is Hwang Woo-suk. The surgeon was, briefly, a hero of South Korea. In 2004, while serving on the faculty at Seoul National University, he co-authored a story in the prestigious journal Science asserting that he and his team had successfully cloned a human embryo. A year later, he created the world’s first cloned dog. Using a cell from the ear of an Afghan hound, Hwang impregnated 123 surrogate mothers, only one of which gave birth to a pup that survived. He named it Snuppy—an amalgam of “Seoul National University” and “puppy.” In 2006, however, Hwang was kicked off the faculty when it was revealed that his claim to have cloned a human embryo was a spectacular hoax. The university determined that Hwang had fabricated evidence, embezzled government funds, and illegally paid for donor eggs from female researchers in his lab. After tearfully apologizing, he was sentenced to two years in prison, but escaped serving time when a judge suspended the sentence, writing in the verdict that Hwang “has shown he has truly repented for his crime.”

Undeterred, Hwang founded Sooam to continue his research. At first, he concentrated on cloning pigs and cows, which still makes up a sizable part of the company’s business. Then, in 2007, he was contacted by a representative of John Sperling, the billionaire founder of Phoenix University. Sperling had a girlfriend whose dog, Missy, had died a few years earlier. “She wanted to see Missy again,” says Wang, the Sooam researcher. Hwang cloned Missy in 2009, launching the lab’s foray into the commercial duplication of dogs.

IMG_8237

Hwang Woo-suk delivers Clone 1108 for a customer who is Middle Eastern royalty. The procedure costs $100,000.

The process itself, fine-tuned over years of trial and error, is known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer.” It starts with an egg from a donor dog. Using a high-powered microscope, scientists poke a micro-hole in the egg and remove the nucleus, where the DNA is housed. They then replace the nucleus with a cell from the dog that is being cloned—usually from its skin or inside its cheek. Finally, the hybrid egg is blasted with a short burst of electricity to fuse the cells and begin cell division. The embryo is then imbedded in a surrogate’s womb. If the transfer takes, a puppy will be born some 60 days later.

The day after Hwang delivers Clone 1108, he agrees to meet me at Sooam’s headquarters, an imposing stone structure that hugs one of the many steep, wooded hills on the southern outskirts of Seoul. Built in 2011, the building looks like a modern-day version of Frankenstein’s castle, its imposing tower offset by a touch of Bauhaus. Hwang refuses most interviews, in part because he speaks limited English, and in part, one suspects, because he isn’t keen to relive his controversial past. Dressed in a light-gray suit, he greets me with a smile that lights up his whole face, which looks younger than his 64 years. He bows slightly and promises, with the reassuring look of an old friend, to answer any questions I submit via e-mail.

Why, I ask him, do so many people want to clone their dogs? “The main reason,” he replies, “is that their beloved companion dogs are like family members, and they would like to have as close to a continuation of that companionship as possible.” He makes clear, though, that customers do not get an exact replica of their dog. Clones often look like the original dog, and share some traits, but they don’t have the original dog’s memories, and their upbringing is inevitably different. “Cloned puppies are like identical twins born at a later date,” Hwang tells me. “A twin out of time.”

And why is the cloning process so expensive? “Unlike other species,” he explains, “there are currently no effective protocols for the in-vitro maturation of canine oocytes.” Translation: the eggs have to be harvested from donor dogs, which go into heat only twice a year, rather than grown in a lab, making them more difficult and expensive to obtain.

When I inquire about ethics, Hwang is brief. “Animal-cloning ethics and human-cloning ethics have completely different values,” he says. “Here in Sooam we are steadfastly against human cloning, but we believe that animal cloning can bring us benefits and help us contribute socially.”

IMG_8238

Hwang is quick to tout the broader benefits of his work in cloning. His staff’s research into stem cells and embryo development has generated dozens of scientific papers that aim to better understand cell development in animals, and to more effectively treat human diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Sooam has a grant from the South Korean government to create a model to screen drugs for melanoma. In a nod to Jurassic Park, Hwang is also using intact tissue frozen for thousands of years in Siberia to attempt to resurrect the woolly mammoth, fusing ancient cells recovered from the frozen tundra with donor eggs from modern-day elephants—a process he hopes can be used to clone other extinct animals, like the Pyrenean ibex, and endangered species like the Ethiopian wolf. But despite Hwang’s years of quiet accomplishment, and supporters who claim he was the victim of a conspiracy to discredit him, the shame of his past deceit has not been forgiven: the South Korean government continues to bar Hwang from conducting research with human eggs and stem cells

At Sooam’s headquarters, Hwang ends our meeting by handing me a peach-colored gift bag full of cosmetics. “For your wife or girlfriend,” he says with a bow. I had already visited the floor upstairs where Sooam uses enzymes and stem cells to make a variety of lotions, cleansing oils, and eye creams, marketed under names like Beauté de Cell, JunéCell, and Beauté de Cell Homme for men. I thank Hwang for the gift, though I’m not exactly wild about the thought of lathering stem cells on my face.

It was Barry Diller, the media mogul, who inspired Barbra Streisand to opt for cloning after the death of her Coton de Tulear. Streisand loved her pet so much that in 2016, she ended a Netflix special of one of her rare concerts with a tribute to Sammie. In the video, she sings a rendition of her hit “Closer” as snapshots fade in and out of the dog cavorting and cuddling with Streisand and her husband, James Brolin.

Diller told Streisand that after the death of his own dog, Shannon, he paid Sooam to clone the Jack Russell terrier. The result was three genetic replicas of Shannon. Two live in Diller’s Beverly Hills mansion: Tess, short for “test tube,” and DiNA, a play on DNA. The third, Evita, lives in the Connecticut home of Diller and his wife, Diane von Furstenberg. “These dogs, they’re the soul of Shannon,” Diller told The New York Times. “Diane was horrified that I was doing this, but she’s switched now to say, ‘Thank God you did.’” Streisand also wound up with three clones, one of which went to the 13-year-old daughter of her A&R man at Columbia Records.

IMG_8239

ViaGen, the Texas-based company that cloned Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett, launched in 2002 to store and preserve the DNA of cows, pigs, and horses. Eventually, the company took over some of the stored tissue from the first-ever cat-cloning company, Genetic Savings and Clone, and acquired patents for technologies developed by the scientists who cloned Dolly the Sheep. At first ViaGen licensed the tech to Sooam, before starting a dog-cloning service of its own two years ago.

 

IMG_8240

Streisand knows that Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett aren’t exact replacements for Sammie. “They have different personalities,” she told Variety. “I’m waiting for them to get older so I can see if they have Sammie’s brown eyes and her seriousness.” That’s because genes are only one factor among many that shape a clone’s looks, personality, behavior. “The dogs are genetic duplicates,” explains Wang, the researcher at Sooam, “but the environment they grow up in also plays a big role in how they will look and act.”

Not everyone who clones a dog is as well off as Streisand. When Tom Rubython, a magazine publisher in Northampton, England, lost his cherished cocker spaniel, Daisy, he knew it was “ridiculous” to have Sooam clone her. “It was not a sensible decision,” he says. “My wife wasn’t very happy about it. But Daisy was special. I had a real connection with her.” Rubython owned two other spaniels who came from the same litter as Daisy, but he had no interest in cloning them. Nor was he interested in simply getting another dog from the same breed. “I don’t believe I would have gotten another dog if I didn’t do this,” he says.

To raise the $100,000 needed to clone Daisy, Rubython had to give up something else he loved. “I have money, but I’m not wealthy,” he says. “I had to sell two cars to pay for it.” He sends me photographs of the cars: a brand-new silver-blue Mercedes SL, and a cream-colored classic SL. “Now I drive a Mini,” he sighs. He also sends me a photo of Daisy, a gray spaniel with flecks of white and black. She has that bedraggled, old-dog look. The two clones, named Mabel and Myrtle, have thick fur and a playful gleam in their eyes. “They are very similar,” says Rubython, “but not the same. One of them looks very similar to the original, another looks like her sister. It’s 85 percent, against 100 percent.” But in every respect, they are indistinguishable from natural-born dogs. “They are staring at me right now,” Rubython says. “They know I’m talking about them.”

Researchers at Sooam, who insist that their cloning process is ethical, are eager to make it more efficient. “The hardest thing about cloning dogs is finding fresh eggs,” says Yeonwoo Jeong, director of Sooam’s biotech research. He hopes to one day grow eggs in the lab, using stem-cell technologies, rather than going through the time and expense to surgically extract eggs from other animals.

According to Jeong, Sooam has dramatically improved the cloning process since Snuppy was born 13 years ago. The company insists that it does not inject surrogates with hormones to induce ovulation, and says that most of the embryos that don’t make it die early in the pregnancy. Today, Jeong says, achieving one viable pregnancy requires implants of multiple embryos in only three dog moms—down from the hundreds of embryos and surrogates it took to give birth to Snuppy. “Through research,” he says, “we have minimized the stress on the dogs.”

It was Barry Diller who inspired Streisand to opt for cloning after the death of her beloved Sammie.

Other researchers scoff at such claims. “I don’t believe they are getting one out of three,” says Rudolf Jaenisch, a leading expert on stem cells and cloning techniques at the Whitehead Institute in Boston. “Cloning is inefficient. You lose many clones. Some die in implantation. You also get abnormal epigenetics”—changes in the animal’s DNA as it ages. “When you take somatic cells from older animals and put them into an egg that will need to develop from an embryo into a viable animal, you get mistakes from the old DNA that would not occur in a naturally produced embryo.” Most of the dogs, he adds, don’t live a normal life span—although it’s hard to know for certain, since most of the dogs cloned to date are just a few years old.

Hank Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford, wonders what happens to the two out of three clones that don’t make it. “Are they delivered deformed or stillborn? Are they born in pain?” What makes cloning dogs unethical, he says, is when it causes more suffering than natural reproduction. During the process, critics say, surrogate mothers often receive injections of hormones to make them receptive to the embryos. “It’s the same hormones used in humans going through I.V.F.,” says CheMyong Jay Ko, who directs a research lab on reproduction and stem cells at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Injecting these hormones is not good for the dogs, particularly when it’s repeated over and over again.”

After Streisand revealed the origins of Miss Scarlett and Miss Violet, animal-rights activists launched a Twitter campaign called #adoptdontclone, urging people who lose their pets to choose a dog from among the millions of natural-borns that have no home. “People who pay $100,000 to create a new dog seem to forget that there are so many that have no one who cares about them,” says Vicki Katrinak, head of animal-research issues for the Humane Society. “We’re opposed to cloning of any animal for profit.”

The clone researchers at Sooam insist that they provide a necessary service for grieving dog lovers. “After death, it’s hard for people who were really close to their dogs,” says Wang. “For those people, a clone is the alternative to a funeral. Some people taxidermy their dogs, others cremate them. Cloning is another way of dealing with death—the closest thing to getting back the lost dog, or a part of it.”

IMG_8241

Hwang Woo-suk at the Sooam lab in Seoul. “Cloned puppies are like identical twins born at a later date,” he says. “A twin out of time.”

Via Vanity Fair

IL-Header-Communicating-with-the-Future

Comments are closed.

Futurist Speaker