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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Making The Informed Decision About Cloning

Byron Tseng |
March 8, 2013 | 11:36 p.m. PST

Bob's clones
Bob's clones

George Semel was a cosmetic surgeon with little interest in pets until he came across a stray puppy, Bob, outside of the Whole Foods in Beverly Hills back in 2008. Semel rescued the 3 week-old dog and provided it with badly needed medical care. For two years Semel cared for the Chihuahua until it was savagely killed by a Rottweiler outside his home in 2011.

Five days after Bob died, Semel collected tissue from the dog's body and sent it to Korea to produce a cloned embryos. "I was pissed off, so I resurrected him," said Semel. "I thought it wasn't fair."

Semel says that the cloning process was not pleasant. One upsetting aspect was that he was informed by the Korean company that a surrogate mother gave birth to three Bob clones before he could even raise the 100,000 dollar fee. Semel did not meet the puppies until he negotiated a deal for the cloning process by paying the costs in installments, but eventually the clones made their way to Los Angeles and to the original Bob's favorite chair.

Pet cloning is still a controversial issue, however. Critics of cloning argue that the cloning process may never be safe and that it is ethically wrong. On the other hand, Semel and others believe that it is a scientific milestone that should not be stigmatized. Semel even believes that when he cloned Bob, not only did the body return, the soul did too. The three clone puppies yap away as he speaks, but he still identifies the eldest of the clones as the one that behaves most like the original. 

Ron Gillispie runs Perpetuate, a Massachusetts based company that develops cell lines for pets. In other words, they act as middleman between the Korean cloning company and American pet cloners. Gillispie explains that due to the high costs that have ranged from 40,000 to 250,000, pet cloning is a very small market numbering no more than 20 cloned pets in the United States and 30 in the world.

"The process involves taking a nucleus out of an egg and plopping the nucleus of a mature animal into it. Afterwards, shocking or chemical treatments are needed for communication to occur between the new nucleus and native mitochondrial DNA. Imagine that DNA in the yoke and the egg white need to communicate to each other to cause growth," said Jaydee Hanson at the International Center for Technology Assessment, describing the initial cloning process.  Hanson says that this communication is the most difficult part of the cloning process to get right. Hanson has pointed to mammals being the more difficult to clone than fish and amphibians due to this process.

Semel, who was weary of the procedure at the start, explains he had an independent scientist from UC Davis check the process of pet cloning first. At Davis they checked that the genome of Bob was intact enough to be cloned. But Semel concedes he is not party to all the information that produced his puppies. "God only knows how many surrogate mothers they use. They didn't even use the same breed for surrogacy.  It is unfortunate since those mothers were not raised to be pets, and that is wrong." Semel is hopeful the technology will improve in the future, saying, "The Wright Brothers didn't fly a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. So some things can be forgiven."

One concern of clones is that they possess health defects like premature aging. Semel is a proud owner of three healthy dogs that incessantly bark and he brushes aside any talk of health defects or abbreviated life spans. He also applauds how the technology that has improved. "My puppies were cloned from a dog that had already been dead for 5 days. It turns out that cells hibernate from lack of oxygen for 5 days after death before dying themselves." Although most clones are derived from cells taken shortly after euthanasia, Bob's clones are a rare case of tissues taken so long after death.

Ever since cloning began, the notion that a cloned Beethoven could be a musical genius with the same memories of the original has appeared.  Semel for one thinks that Bob's three clones are more than just bodily clones. "These dogs pick pockets like the old Bob and know their way around me house," Semel says, while clarifying when asked whether his puppies retained past memories. "It would be nice if I could have a conversation with the dogs to know for sure."

Semel says he would not think twice to do it again. "I am interested in the scientific aspect. I questioned whether it was possible to bring my dog back, with the past memories. That is why I cloned my dog."

Semel with the clones
Semel with the clones

Gillispie has also pondered whether clones retain the original's memories. He recalls one calf in Texas named Chance that entertained guests on a farm by posing in pictures. "When Chance passed away, his tissue was collected to produce his clone, named Second Chance. When Second Chance returned to the farm, he made a B-line to the tree where his original hung out," he said.

When asked why he did not simply buy a new Chihuahua, Semel says, "There are many sweet dogs. If you want a dog, go to the pound and get one." But Semel reminds us that unlike many other pet cloners who have cloned their pets that lived a full life cycle, he cloned an animal that died young and tragically. He distances himself away from other pet cloners who he sees as serving their own needs and not that of their pet.

Opponents of animal cloning have pointed to euthanized pets in pounds as reason enough to not pursue cloning. "There are so many homeless pets already produced from puppy mills and unscrupulous breeders, that never have the opportunity to find a home," said Madeline Bernstein of the Humane Society. Bernstein also takes aim at how inbreeding in pets is so widespread that pet cloning will exacerbate the problem.

Gillispie does not think that inbreeding will be a problem and argues, "There are so many defects from pet inbreeding. Many dog breeds have inherent hip problems. But what if you were to find the best Corgi that did not have a hip problem. And that clone would be a guaranteed healthy dog." Gillispie points out that there could be a future where pet breeding that leads to inbreeding could disappear,iIn part because pet owners would simply neuter their pets immediately and when their pet eventually dies, they can simply clone it cheaply. This vision, where most pets are cloned, would take the risk out of pets having any hereditary problems.

Pet cloning has also come under attack because of fears that the technology is not ready and may never be. Bernstein says "It causes much pain to other animals, especially the surrogate mother. " She also argues that dog cloners rarely disclose their data. "They may only report the one or two successful cases. So it's hard to extrapolate negative from that." Hanson echoes Bernstein's sentiments saying, "This process may only work 1% of the time. Perhaps up to 300 embryos and unknown number of surrogates are used in the process."

Gillispie understands Hanson's concerns but assures us that the process has improved to the point that only one surrogate mother and only 6 embryos are needed.  Although Gillispie is not privy to the number of oocytes (surrogate mother eggs) that are needed in the process.

Pet cloning is only a tip of the iceberg in terms of animal cloning. Gillispie estimates that there are 1,200 cloned livestock in the United States alone. From these animals, scientists can better determine the health risks of cloned animals. Hanson has researched cloned livestock and points to problems in progeny and defects. "Some cloned calves are born inside out. It happens to normal cows, but the frequency is higher in cloned animals," he says. Another major fear of cloned animal is premature aging, caused by clones containing shorter telomeres in their cells.

Gillispie denies any health defects of clones saying they are a myth borne when the first cloned sheep, Dolly, died young. "Dolly died of a virus that had nothing to do with premature aging. Research scientists conducted studies on cloned mice and found no evidence of premature aging." Gillispie added the only common defect was that many clones were born abnormally large and required caesarean sections, but that this behavior was common with livestock born via in-vitro fertilization as well, and not necessarily due to cloning.

Gillispie also applauds the potential profits in livestock cloning. He details how in the 1940's , farmers selected highly productive bulls, collected their semen and artificially inseminated cows. This enabled average cows to produce 200 pounds of milk in the 1930's to 25,000 pounds of milk after the 1940's. Gillispie now looks at cloning as the next frontier to cope with rising food demand. "With cloning you can select the most productive cows. And now an average cow can produce 50,000 pounds of milk a year."

Hanson believes that pet cloning and livestock cloning is a slippery slope to human cloning. "Cattle are more complicated than humans," Hanson says, implying that the technology is already available for this next step.

However, Gillispie shrugs of fears of human cloning. "It is out of the realm of possibility," he said. "People are afraid. In truth, we are more interested in cloning human proteins that can be used in therapy."

However, Semel questions why human cloning is so stigmatized. "You can regress cells, and inject marrow you can repair that tissue. They are already using this technique on horses, but it is not approved for humans," he said, adding that you don't need to kill anything in that process either. Semel talks about how more tragic circumstances can be mitigated by cloning and stem cell technology. "Things go wrong in life. It's worth giving some things another chance." 


Reach reporter Byron Tseng here.



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