Lab that clonea beloved pets

More than two decades af­ter Dolly the sheep, a con­tro­ver­sial vet is now cre­at­ing cloned dogs. We go in­side the South Korean lab where sci­en­tists will copy a beloved lost pet – at a price!


THE las er kni fe in Dr Hwang’s hand is so hot you can smell the dog’s burn­ing flesh, but it cau­terises as it cuts so there’s no blood at all. A clamp holds open the glis­ten­ing pink wound. The doc­tor bur­rows into her belly with gloved fin­gers and ex­tracts the womb with a slurp­ing sound.

An­other stroke of the heat scalpel and the sack is open, gush­ing fluid. The new­born is held aloft, the um­bil­i­cal cord is snipped and less than three min­utes af­ter the blade went in, baby No 1 192 en­ters the world.

This is the third time I’ve seen a live mam­mal be­ing born, but the births of my own two chil­dren were very dif­fer­ent from this. For a start, the baby be­fore me is a puppy – a white English bull­dog, with the breed’s char­ac­ter­is­tic jowls.

Its mother, con­fus­ingly, is a brown mon­grel – the two have no ge­netic re­la­tion­ship at all. For puppy No 1 192 is a

clone, con­ceived not by the con­tact of parental sperm and egg but through sci­en­tific ma­nip­u­la­tion to pro­duce a copy of an­other dog that died weeks ago on the other side of the world. The puppy was con­ceived in a lab and im­planted in the womb of the sur­ro­gate mother.

This mar­vel of 21st-cen­tury sci­ence hasn’t been per­formed in the name of re­search, but of com­merce. The fu­ture own­ers of the lit­tle bull­dog are pay­ing for him and his broth­ers, who were born from dif­fer­ent sur­ro­gates a few days ago. Now, 22 years af­ter Dolly the sheep be­came the first mam­mal to be cloned, cloning has evolved into a busi­ness.

For puppy No 1 192 – and each of the other cloned dogs suc­cess­fully de­liv­ered at Sooam Biotech Re­search Foun­da­tion – cus­tomers have paid a stan­dard rate of $100 000 (R1,45 mil­lion).

All over the world wealthy an­i­mal lovers – in­clud­ing leg­endary song­bird Bar­bra Streisand – have turned to sci­en­tists to per­form the clos­est thing to a mir­a­cle: the re­turn in phys­i­cal form of their dead pet. The work of Sooam Biotech in the South Korean cap­i­tal, Seoul, is not re­stricted to house­hold pets – it also clones res­cue, search and snif­fer dogs and cows and pigs for agri­cul­ture.

But the most re­mark­able thing about all this is the man be­hind it: Hwang Woo-suk, the scrubs-clad, rub­ber­gloved sci­en­tist who per­forms the ca­nine Cae­sarean sec­tion.

Thir­teen years ago he was on course to win a No­bel prize for as­ton­ish­ing and his­toric dis­cov­er­ies. Then glory turned to hu­mil­i­a­tion in the most dra­matic fash­ion pos­si­ble. Within a few months Hwang was ex­posed as a fraud, and within a few years he was a con­victed crim­i­nal. Now he’s back, to res­ur­rect the pets of the rich – us­ing a tech­nol­ogy that was once in­tended to cure Alzheimer’s and other dis­eases.

THE suc­cess of Sooam Biotech is based on sad and un­avoid­able facts. Dog own­ers love their dogs – some­times more than their fel­low hu­man be­ings. But a dog lives for only 10 to 15 years. In an av­er­age life­time, a se­rial pet owner can eas­ily live through half a dozen be­reave­ments.

“Sooam Biotech Re­search Foun­da­tion is able to pro­long the com­pan­ion­ship with your dog by bring­ing back the mem­o­ries that you have with your friend,” the lab’s web­site promises.

“Cloning tech­nol­ogy is pos­si­ble at Sooam for any dog no mat­ter its age, size and breed. Sooam not only per­forms dog cloning re­search, but we also heal the bro­ken hearts.”

The cloning method is well es­tab­lished, but com­pli­cated, and there’s much that can go wrong along the way.

A for­ward- think­ing owner would set it in mo­tion when her pet was still alive – but for most

peo­ple the drive to pre­serve life be­gins with death.

A bold panel on the Sooam home page, an­tic­i­pat­ing the tear­ful googling of grief-stricken dog lovers, spells out the pri­or­i­ties: “When your dog has passed away DO NOT place the ca­daver in­side the freezer.”

In­stead it en­cour­ages own­ers to wrap their pet’s body in wet bath tow­els and place it in a fridge. It ad­vises them that they have five days to suc­cess­fully ex­tract and se­cure live cells. A lo­cal vet must take biopsy sam­ples from the corpse – three of skin and three of mus­cle. These are brought to Seoul in per­son in the hand lug­gage of the be­reaved owner (courier ser­vices aren’t trusted with such pre­cious cargo and test tubes of dog flesh can cause con­fu­sion at cus­toms).

Once in Sooam, be­neath the lens of a pow­er­ful mi­cro­scope, tech­ni­cians take an egg from the in­tended sur­ro­gate mother and re­move its nu­cleus. Into this empty or “enu­cle­ated” egg, a cell of the de­ceased dog, con­tain­ing its DNA, is in­serted. A zap of elec­tric­ity fuses the two to­gether, and they’re im­planted back in the womb of the sur­ro­gate mother.

The tech­nique is called “so­matic cell nu­clear trans­fer”. When British sci­en­tists Keith Camp­bell and Ian Wil­mut used it in 1996 to clone Dolly it took 277 at­tempts, but Sooam re­ports a suc­cess rate of around 40%. And 60 days later, if all goes well, a puppy will be born. What hap­pens next de­pends on quar­an­tine laws in the dog’s fu­ture coun­try. On the day I visit Sooam, there are more than 150 an­i­mals in the lab’s ken­nels, sit­ting out the weeks and months nec­es­sary for the pa­per­work that will al­low their own­ers to take them home. It’s a place of un­re­lent­ing cute­ness, where tiny and iden­ti­cal pup­pies gam­bol and frolic – six small salukis in this pen, seven mixed Mal­tese-chi­huahuas in that one, and a trio of English poo­dles.

Ge­neti­cists ex­plain that clones, shar­ing the same DNA as their fore­bears, can be thought of as the equiv­a­lent of iden­ti­cal twins born at dif­fer­ent times. But, in­ter­est­ingly, the dogs aren’t all ex­actly the same.

Five bea­gles, des­tined to be snif­fer

dogs at In­cheon In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Seoul, show small vari­a­tions in the mark­ings on their coats – a white spot here and there.

“There can be dif­fer­ences,” Hwang says. “It’s be­cause of what hap­pens in the womb of the sur­ro­gate. They can be af­fected by the course of the preg­nancy, be­cause of some­thing the sur­ro­gate mother ate, or the hor­mones in her body.”

Just as with twins, an iden­ti­cal tem­per­a­ment can’t be guar­an­teed ei­ther be­cause of the many and in­ter­act­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors ( from the way a dog is trained and pet­ted to what it eats) that in­flu­ence per­son­al­ity. But the strange­ness of what Hwang does – near iden­ti­cal dogs born from com­pletely dif­fer­ent dogs in the image of dead dogs – is very clear from the scene in the ken­nels.

Sooam Biotech is based in a four-storey com­plex of con­crete and glass on a hill in the south­ern out­skirts of Seoul. Around 60 peo­ple work here, both sci­en­tists and ad­min­is­tra­tors.

The head­quar­ters con­tain meet­ing rooms with screens for pre­sen­ta­tions, of­fices and sealed lab­o­ra­to­ries that are en­tered through air­locks and where visi­tors must be robed, capped and masked. But the emo­tional heart of the en­ter­prise is a wide, white wall cov­ered with pho­to­graphs of de­lighted peo­ple and their adorable cloned pup­pies.

Each frame is la­belled with a place name and a na­tional flag – Ot­tawa, Hy­der­abad, Moscow, Tokyo and Los An­ge­les. The pho­to­graphs show big dogs, small dogs, pretty dogs, ugly dogs, cute dogs, soppy dogs and fierce dogs. The only thing they have in com­mon is that they’re all copies.

Among their own­ers is a pub­lisher from Eng­land who traded in his two Mercedes cars to raise the money to clone a dead spaniel named Daisy.

“If you love a dog then you’ll un­der­stand,” Hwang says. “My clients don’t con­sider their pets as an­i­mals. Their pet dog is like one of their fam­ily.”

HWANG is a gen­tle­manly, un­der­stated man of 65 with an air of cour­te­ous hu­mil­ity. He was born in Buyeo in the cen­tral part of South Korea in the last months of the Korean War to a fam­ily stricken by poverty and tragedy.

His fa­ther, a rice farmer, died of a stroke at the age of 40 when Hwang was five. His mother, who died last year at 101, brought up six chil­dren on her own.

He was the only one to be ed­u­cated be­yond pri­mary school and showed such prom­ise that he ended up study­ing vet­eri­nary sci­ence at Seoul Na­tional Univer­sity. Ini­tially he fo­cused on im­prov­ing milk yields and meat qual­ity by tin­ker­ing with the ge­netic make-up of live­stock, but in 1999 he came to na­tional at­ten­tion when he an­nounced that he’d cloned a cow named Yeon­grong-i.

Then, in 2004, the in­ter­na­tion­ally re­spected jour­nal Sci­ence pub­lished a pa­per by Hwang and his team re­port­ing the suc­cess­ful cre­ation of hu­man stem cells from a cloned hu­man blas­to­cyst – the clus­ter of cells that’s the pre­cur­sor of an em­bryo.

Stem cells are the blank tiles of the hu­man body, with the ca­pac­ity to de­velop into cells of dif­fer­ent types. Be­cause of this they can serve as a kind of hu­man “re­pair kit”, re­plen­ish­ing dam­aged and dis­eased parts of the body. If sci­en­tists could take a pa­tient’s DNA, cre­ate a cloned em­bryo and gen­er­ate stem cells, these could be used to treat and pre­vent con­di­tions such as Parkinson’s dis­ease, Alzheimer’s, di­a­betes, heart dis­ease, arthri­tis and the kind of stroke that killed Hwang’s fa­ther. Be­cause the cells are cre­ated out of the pa­tient’s own DNA they won’t be re­jected by the body.

Teams of sci­en­tists all over the world had been chas­ing such a break­through. In May 2005, 15 months later, Hwang pub­lished a sec­ond re­mark­able pa­per de­scrib­ing the suc­cess­ful cre­ation of 11 stem cell “lines”, pro­duced from the ge­netic ma­te­rial of pa­tients suf­fer­ing from spinal in­juries. Three months af­ter that he pre­sented an Afghan hound named Snuppy (af­ter the ini­tials of Seoul Na­tional Univer­sity, where he was now a pro­fes­sor), who was de­clared to be the world’s first cloned dog.

In South Korea, a na­tion with an acute sense of be­ing in­suf­fi­ciently recog­nised by the world at large, there was fierce and im­mod­er­ate pride in Hwang’s achieve­ments. The govern­ment es­tab­lished a World Stem Cell Hub to be led by the sci­en­tist. The na­tional air­line promised him and his wife free first-class flights for 10 years and the post of­fice is­sued stamps in his hon­our.

But in Novem­ber 2005 the South Korean in­ves­tiga­tive news pro­gramme PD Note­book re­ported on al­le­ga­tions of un­eth­i­cal con­duct against Hwang. Among the many hu­man eggs used as part of his re­search, it was claimed, were ones har­vested from fe­male mem­bers of his own re­search team. This, if true, would be a vi­o­la­tion of widely recog­nised rules in­tended to pro­tect ju­nior sci­en­tists against pres­sure from their se­niors.

Two days later Hwang ad­mit­ted that, de­spite pre­vi­ous de­nials, he’d in­deed taken eggs from two of his ju­nior col­leagues. He re­signed from all his govern­ment po­si­tions and apol­o­gised, say­ing he’d been “too driven”.

But there were ru­mours of some­thing

more se­ri­ous than eth­i­cal fail­ings.

In De­cem­ber fel­low sci­en­tists pointed out that sev­eral of the pub­lished pho­to­graphs of the em­bry­onic stem cell lines showed the same cell. Then one of his col­lab­o­ra­tors said that most of the cell lines had been faked. Two days be­fore the end of 2005 a team of in­ves­ti­ga­tors from Seoul Na­tional Univer­sity re­ported that there was no ev­i­dence that any of the stem cell lines had ac­tu­ally been cre­ated as de­scribed. The ver­dict of the fi­nal crush­ing re­port: both the pa­pers pub­lished in Sci­ence had been falsified.

Hwang was ig­no­min­iously dis­missed by the univer­sity. In May 2006 he was in­dicted on crim­i­nal charges – his trial and sub­se­quent ap­peals to higher courts went on un­til 2014. In the end he was ac­quit­ted of fraud but con­victed of break­ing South Korea’s bioethics law and of em­bez­zling 830 mil­lion South Korean won (about R8,6 mil­lion at the time).

He re­ceived an 18-month sus­pended sen­tence. In jus­ti­fy­ing his le­niency the judge said that Hwang “has shown he’s truly re­pented for his crime”.

It was a cu­ri­ous con­clu­sion. Even to­day Hwang presents him­self as a care­less vic­tim of oth­ers rather than a wrong­doer in his own right.

“I’ve made some crit­i­cal mis­takes dur­ing my re­search,” he tells me. “It wasn’t my fault but [the fault of] an­other re­search mem­ber.

“But all the re­spon­si­bil­ity, all the mis­takes, be­long to me.”

IN ONE mat­ter alone he was vin­di­cated. Although his stem cel l re­search had been falsified, Snuppy the Afghan puppy was real – Hwang had in­deed cre­ated the world’s first ever cloned dog. And this would be his sal­va­tion. “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,” wrote Bar­bra Streisand in an ar­ti­cle in The New York Times about the pass­ing of her 14-year-old Co­ton de Tuléar.

“It was eas­ier to let Sammie go if I knew I could keep some part of her alive.”

Such think­ing is fan­tasy, of course. Sammie is gone for ever. Her clones, Miss Vi­o­let and Miss Scar­lett, are dif­fer­ent crea­tures.

“A lot of them be­lieve they’re get­ting their dogs back, as op­posed to just a ge­net­i­cally iden­ti­cal twin,” says John Woes­tendiek, a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist and au­thor of Dog, Inc: The Un­canny In­side Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend.

Apart from sim­i­lar­ity in out­ward ap­pear­ance you would have about as much chance of repli­cat­ing your favourite pet by choos­ing one from an an­i­mal shel­ter as you would from cloning it, says Pro­fes­sor Robin Lovell-Badge of the British Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil.

Cloning causes suf­fer­ing, es­pe­cially to the sur­ro­gates, who are op­er­ated on three times – to ex­tract their eggs, to im­plant them again and then to de­liver their off­spring.

Yet Sooam em­pha­sises the ben­e­fits that cloning could bring – by sav­ing en­dan­gered and even ex­tinct species. (Hwang is in­volved in a project with Rus­sian sci­en­tists to make clones from the cells of a frozen mam­moth.) It in­sists that clones are typ­i­cal an­i­mals in ev­ery way – and the ev­i­dence is that they do in­deed have a nor­mal life ex­pectancy and the ca­pac­ity to re­pro­duce. But in re­search­ing his book Woes­tendiek heard sto­ries of fright­en­ing ab­nor­mal­i­ties in newly born clones, in­clud­ing some with skele­tal de­for­mi­ties.

If you ac­cept that dogs, to some, are as beloved as chil­dren, and that clones can suc­cess­fully re­place them, then does this not in­evitably lead to an­other con­clu­sion – that those who’ve lost hu­man chil­dren should be al­lowed to clone them?

“Frankly speak­ing,” Hwang ad­mits, “we do get re­quests for hu­man cloning. I’m strongly against [such] re­quests from a client – not only me but all my re­search team feel very strongly [about it].”

Hav­ing done what he did, Hwang can’t af­ford any sug­ges­tion of eth­i­cal im­pro­pri­ety, and hu­man cloning in South Korea is il­le­gal. But at times in our con­ver­sa­tion he seems to waver.

“My phi­los­o­phy is that it’s ex­tremely crim­i­nal,” he says. “But so­cially? Some­times I’m partly sym­pa­thetic [to re­quests for hu­man cloning]. But if we vi­o­late eth­i­cal guide­lines, no one can stop this tech­nol­ogy. We have to keep an eth­i­cal base.” With his rep­u­ta­tion in tat­ters he has to tread cau­tiously.

“It wasn’t just one mo­ment of weak­ness,” Alan Col­man, a stem-cell sci­en­tist at the In­sti­tute of Med­i­cal Bi­ol­ogy in Sin­ga­pore, said af­ter Hwang’s con­vic­tion. “The de­gree of ma­nip­u­la­tion of the good­will of peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly fel­low sci­en­tists, made it more.”

Yet Hwang still hopes there will come a day when he’ll be given the green light to con­duct fur­ther ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with hu­man stem cells. “I still have my dream,” he says. “At present it’s not al­lowed to me but I haven’t given up.”

‘My clients don’t con­sider their pets as an­i­mals. Their pet dog is like one of their fam­ily'

LEFT: Hwang Woo-suk made his­tory in 2005 with the cre­ation of Snuppy, the world’s first cloned dog. RIGHT: Since then his lab­o­ra­tory at the Sooam Biotech Re­search Foun­da­tion in Seoul, South Korea has cloned more than 1 000 dogs.

ABOVE: Bar­bra Streisand with Sammie in 2006. ABOVE RIGHT: With one of Sammie’s clones.

Snuppy was cre­ated us­ing a sin­gle cell culled from this adult Afghan hound’s ear.

A cloned puppy is suck­led by a sur­ro­gate mother at the lab­o­ra­tory.

Pet lover Ber­nann McK­in­ney hold­ing her cloned pit­bull ter­rier.

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