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.