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March 23, 2000
Like most pet owners, Cynthia Smith thinks her dog Billie is special. Always at her side, he travels with her and even goes to work with her. So when she saw an ad in Dog World magazine about a company that could collect and store Billies cells for eventual cloning, she picked up the phone.
Would you clone your dog? Mimi Schwartz, NY, NY.
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While no one has yet cloned cats and dogs, the technology for cloning other animalscalled nuclear transferhas advanced quickly. It began in 1997 with Dolly, a sheep that was the first animal to be cloned from the cells of an adult. Since then, scientists have successfully cloned cattle, mice, and, earlier this month, pigs. If the pace keeps up, it might not be so long before people are cloning their pets.
If not now, when?
"Scientists have said that they expect to have results within the year, and I think that its right on the horizon," says Heather Bessoff, President and Founder of PerPETuate, Inc., the company Cynthia Smith is using to store Billies cells. "And its just a matter of learning the details of the reproductive systems of species like dogs and cats before the technology can be completed in those animals."
A veterinarian who formerly worked for a bovine genetics company, Bessoff is betting on the rapid research going on at Texas A & M University, where a wealthy anonymous family has donated millions of dollars to clone their dog, Missy. Scientistsof the project (called Missyplicity) predict theyll successfully clone a cat within the next year, and a dog inside of five years. Theyre already growing embryos from Missys cells. Bessoff is so confident the research will pay off that she guarantees that if a dog or cat hasnt been cloned within three years of the date the contract starts, storage for the next two years will be free of charge.
What are the drawbacks? Kim Hanson, NY, NY.
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The procedure for collecting and storing cells is relatively simple. Using a local anesthetic, the vet removes two pieces of skin smaller than the end of a pencil eraser. "The animal can go home the very same day and its relatively painless and heals extremely quickly," says Bessoff. The samples are then immediately shipped to the lab to be processed and then stored in liquid nitrogen. "The younger and healthier an animal is, the better the cell culture is that we get," notes Bessoff. "We have been successful in taking samples from animals which are extremely ill, that have been euthanized or have recently passed away, but its a matter of minutes or hours [after death] rather than of days or weeks."
The costs for getting a head start on cloning are not quite prohibitively expensive for pet owners. PerPETuate charges $250 for enrollment, $500 for processing and $90 a year for storage. Lazaron, a biotechnology company that offers the same service, has similar fees, while gene banking at Genetic Savings and Clone, an offshoot of Missyplicity, runs about $1,000. One other company is Canine Cryobank, Inc. The research costs for Missyplicity will run to about $2.5 million if the project succeeds this year. But no one is prepared to say how expensive commercial cloning is likely to be, once its viable.
Why clone a pet?
The reasons people are interested in cloning their pets vary. Although Smith hasnt decided if she will definitely clone Billie when the time comes, it she likes having the option as an alternative, since he can no longer breed. Also, the thought of not having him around makes her uncomfortable. "It brought up a lot of emotions I wasnt too happy with, so this sort of gives me a little security so that I can kind of examine those issues sometime in the future," she says. Breeders, owners of dogs with unique talents, or those with service dogs are also among those who could consider cloning. Bessoff says that her company has had several hundred inquiries, with approximately 100 people currently participating in the program.
Is it ethical? Pamela Medvecky of NY, NY.
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Once cloning is possible, however, owners should not expect an exact duplicate of their pet. The result will be more like identical twins, according to Bessoff. "The color pattern is going to be generally the same, there might be some slight variations," she says. She points out that even though the animals will be the same genetically, scientists have determined that personality is about 50 to 80 per cent related to genetics. So how the animal is nurtured and trained will also play a part in its personality.
Critics of pet cloning say that it will increase the number of unwanted pets, but Bessoff doesnt see it that way. On the contrary, she thinks it offers a unique opportunity. "The more they study cloning, the more theyll understand about the reproductive system and the more scientists will learn about how to control the reproductive system, therefore providing new methods of birth control that will actually reduce the unwanted pet population," she says.
Companies that undertake gene banking are understandably concerned about the ethics involved. They develop and adhere to strict bioethics codes, which are posted on their websites. PerPETuate even screens all its samples to ensure there are no human cells present. But, like the research itself, the debate about the ethics of cloning is sure to continue.