Don't bury Fido - sci­ence can clone him

South Korea’s Sooam Biotech Re­search Foun­da­tion, headed by con­tro­ver­sial founder Hwang Woo-Suk, will dou­ble your pug­gle so you never have to say good­bye to your best friend

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page -

AT US$100,000 a head, the pup­pies frol­ick­ing around the fenced lawn in western Seoul don’t come cheap – but at least their own­ers know ex­actly what they are get­ting.

The lawn be­longs to the Sooam Biotech Re­search Foun­da­tion, a world leader in pet cloning that has run a thriv­ing com­mer­cial busi­ness over the past decade ca­ter­ing to dog own­ers who want to live with their pets for­ever ... lit­er­ally.

With a client list in­clud­ing princes, celebri­ties and bil­lion­aires, the foun­da­tion of­fers own­ers pro­tec­tion against loss and grief with a cloning ser­vice that prom­ises the per­fect re­place­ment for a beloved pet.

Since 2006, the fa­cil­ity has cloned nearly 800 dogs, com­mis­sioned by own­ers or state agen­cies seek­ing to repli­cate their best snif­fer and res­cue dogs.

“These peo­ple have very a strong bond with their pets ... and cloning pro­vides a psy­cho­log­i­cal al­ter­na­tive to the tra­di­tional method of just let­ting the pet go and keep­ing their mem­ory,” said Wang Jae-Woong, a re­searcher and spokesper­son for Sooam.

“With cloning, you have a chance to bring back the pets,” he said in the fa­cil­ity’s “care room” where each cloned puppy is kept in a glass-fronted, tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled pen and mon­i­tored by re­searchers around the clock.

Ever since the mile­stone birth of Dolly the sheep in 1996, the rights and wrongs of cloning have been a topic of heated de­bate and Sooam Biotech has been re­garded with par­tic­u­lar sus­pi­cion be­cause of its founder, Hwang Woo-Suk.

In two ar­ti­cles pub­lished in the jour­nal Sci­ence in 2004 and 2005, Hwang claimed to have de­rived stem-cell lines from cloned hu­man em­bryos, a world first.

He was lauded as a na­tional hero in South Korea be­fore it emerged that his re­search was fraud­u­lent and rid­dled with eth­i­cal lapses.

Hwang was given a two-year sus­pended prison sen­tence in 2009, af­ter be­ing con­victed of em­bez­zle­ment and bioeth­i­cal vi­o­la­tions.

Sooam Biotech clones many an­i­mals, in­clud­ing cat­tle and pigs for med­i­cal re­search and breed preser­va­tion, but is best known for its com­mer­cial dog ser­vice.

The process in­volves har­vest­ing a ma­ture cell from the dog to be copied and trans­fer­ring its DNA to a donor egg cell that has had its own ge­netic ma­te­rial re­moved.

The cell and the egg are “fused” with an elec­tri­cal jolt, and the re­sult­ing em­bryo is im­planted in a sur­ro­gate mother dog, which will give birth about two months later.

De­spite the $100,000 price tag, re­quests for the ser­vice have poured in from around the world, Wang said – around half from North Amer­ica.

Some have sought clones of other pets like cats, snakes and even chin­chillas, but Wang said the de­mand for such an­i­mals was too small to jus­tify the cost.

Walls around the five-storey Sooam Biotech cen­tre are adorned with dozens of pho­tos of cloned dogs and their smil­ing own­ers – tagged with their na­tional flags in­clud­ing the US, Mex­ico, Dubai, Rus­sia, Ja­pan, China and Ger­many.

“[The clients] un­der­stand that a clone is an iden­ti­cal twin of the orig­i­nal pet, but also has a lot of ge­netic pre­dis­po­si­tions and the po­ten­tial to de­velop as the orig­i­nal pet,” Wang said.

One well-pub­li­cised cloning was of Trakr, a for­mer po­lice dog hailed as a hero af­ter dis­cov­er­ing the last sur­vivor of the 9/11 at­tack on the World Trade Cen­ter.

Sooam pro­duced five clones af­ter Trakr’s owner won a con­test for the world’s most “clone-wor­thy” dog.

High pro­file clients have in­cluded Princess Shaikha Lat­i­fah of Dubai who cloned her pet dog in 2015 and helped launch a joint re­search study into cloning camel breeds known for high milk pro­duc­tion.

For the most part, the foun­da­tion’s clients and fi­nan­cial sup­port­ers of Hwang Woo-Suk’s re­search pre­fer to re­main anony­mous.

“Few of our back­ers – even the most loyal ones – want to voice their sup­port pub­licly,” said Sooam Biotech’s gen­eral man­ager Kim Hoon, who ac­knowl­edged that the scan­dal in­volv­ing the fa­cil­ity’s founder had tainted its im­age.

“I think the only way to win the pub­lic’s trust back is mak­ing more gen­uine sci­en­tific break­throughs,” he said.

The cen­tre does not con­duct any hu­man stem cell re­search af­ter be­ing re­peat­edly de­nied a state ap­proval to do so.

But it is push­ing a num­ber of am­bi­tious projects, most no­tably an ef­fort to clone an ex­tinct mam­moth.

Since 2012, Hwang’s team has at­tempted to cul­ti­vate liv­ing cells from the frozen re­mains of mam­moths in Siberia.

For med­i­cal re­search pur­poses, Sooam Biotech also pro­duces ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered an­i­mals, or “dis­ease mod­els” that are pre­dis­posed to Alzheimer’s, di­a­betes or cer­tain can­cers.

Dur­ing a visit to the clinic by AFP, Hwang him­self was lead­ing a pro­ce­dure to in­ject the em­bryo of a bea­gle into a sur­ro­gate mother dog’s womb.

“This dog, once born, has a pos­si­bil­ity to be­come a dis­ease model for hu­man brain tu­mours,” Hwang said.

Sooam is also in­volved in a joint ven­ture with Chi­nese biotech­nol­ogy firm Boy­al­ife to set up what will be the world’s largest an­i­mal cloning fac­tory in the north­east­ern Chi­nese port city of Tian­jin.

But head re­searcher Jeong Yeon-Woo said the dog cloning re­mained his favourite ser­vice be­cause of the re­ac­tion of own­ers when they see the pup­pies.

“They look like they found a child that had been miss­ing,” Jeong said.

“The mo­ment of pure joy like that ... makes me re­alise again why I’m do­ing this.”

Pho­tos: AFP

Cloned dogs pose in their glass-fronted pen.

A staff mem­ber walks past cloned dogs at a care room of the Sooam Biotech Re­search Foun­da­tion in Seoul, South Korea.

Hwang Woo-Suk, the founder of Sooam Biotech, served a two-year sus­pended prison sen­tence af­ter con­vic­tion of em­bez­zle­ment and bioeth­i­cal vi­o­la­tions in 2009.

A South Korean re­seacher holds a cloned dog in her arms, one of nearly 800 pets that have been repli­cated for their own­ers’ sake.

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