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Duplicating Dolly -- Can You Clone Your Pet Yet?
By Heather Lindsey

Alexander Wolff, a retired schoolteacher living in Brooklyn, is considering having Lily, who died about two years ago, cloned.

Lily is a cat.
"We were the best of friends," says Wolff of his beloved cat, whom he owned for 15 years. "I found him in the street and he was my first pet." Wolff would later find out that he was actually a she. "I couldn't see his parts," he quips, but the flowery name stuck.

Because of his desire to clone Lily, Wolff is now a client of Lazaron BioTechnologies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He has some of his cat's skin cells cryopreserved, or specially prepared in a laboratory and frozen to preserve their genetic material, at the company about five years ago-three years before he died. Wolff hopes to have Lily cloned one day.

"We're essentially offering the service of cell banking in the hopes of cloning, which, admittedly, in many species hasn't yet proven to be a biological possibility,'" says Richard Denniston, an embryologist and president and chief executive at Lazaron.

How Soon Will it Be Available?

As Wolff continues to wait for pet cloning technology to become readily available to the general public, he becomes less certain of wanting to commit to caring for a pet again, even if it was "another" Lily.

"It's not possible to predict the pace of the scientific breakthroughs that will be necessary to make cloning technology accessible to pet owners," says Ben Carlson, spokesperson for Genetic Savings and Clone in Sausalito, California.

Perfecting the technology and making it readily available to bereaved pet owners will depend on several factors, including the animal species, the associated cost and the progress that researchers can make in working out the remaining hurdles and problems, says Mark D. Irwin, D.V.M., instructor of biology for SUNY Jefferson Community College's Animal Management program in Watertown, NY.

"Cloning of some livestock is pretty well a reality now," he says. "Cat cloning is getting close to being commercially viable, while dogs and other species have further to go. I think that it is inevitable and just a matter of time before it becomes affordable and probably commonplace."

The Pet Cloning Process

Lazarus Technologies describes cloning as a reproductive technique that results in offspring who are genetically identical as the donor animal or "parent."

Currently, cloning a pet involves collecting a small skin sample from your pet at your veterinarian's office and properly cryopreserving it to keep the animal's cells and genetic code (DNA) alive far beyond the animal's life.

When the cloning process begins, the cryopreserved skin cells from the donor animal are thawed and allowed to grow in a petri dish for several days. Each of these skin cells contains the identical genetic make-up or code of the donor animal.

Next, an egg cell from a different animal of the same species is placed under a microscope and its nucleus --the part that contains the genetic material-- is removed. A single donor animal skin cell is removed from a growing cell colongy from the pet that is to be cloned and placed next to the donor egg cell. Then, a cell fusion machine is used to fuse the donor cell with the egg cell to create an embryo.

The cloned embryo is then implanted in the reproductive tract of a surrogate mother of the same animal species. If all goes well, the surrogate mother will carry the clone to term and give birth as in a normal pregnancy. The surrogate female does not contribute any genetic material to the developing fetus.

CopyCat and Rainbow

Genetic Savings and Clone, in conjunction with Texas A&M University, cloned a calico lab cat named Rainbow in late 2001. But the cloned kitten, CopyCat (affectionately known as CC) looked very different from Rainbow and "created some confusion in public mind," says Carlson. While Rainbow has gold, black and tan splotches on a while coat, CC has gray tiger stripes on white. It was immediately apparent that Rainbow's clone was not, as her name would suggest, an exact copy.

"Calico's happen to have a genetic anomaly that prevents the replication of the their specific coloration and markings pattern through the cloning process," explains Carlson. Additionally, while genes determine coloration, they don't determine shape or size of the markings, he notes.

Environmental factors could have also influenced the CC's color pattern, says Denniston. For example, the position of the clone in the surrogate's uterus during fetal development can influence which specific hair follicles are invaded by color producing cells. Even environmental factors such as the diet of the pregnant surrogate can influence the size of the clone at birth. The social environment in which animals are raised, not just genetics, also impacts behavior. As a lab cat, Rainbow is skittish around people, says Carlson. In contrast, CC is friendly because she has been treated like a pet.

Dogs Are in the Works

Researchers at Genetic Savings and Clone are now working on cloning dogs through an effort called the Missiplicity project.

Dogs tend to pose some additional challenges because of unique aspects of female canine reproduction, says Denniston. For example, they come into heat only about once or twice a year, he says, so the window of opportunity to successfully implant a cloned embryo in a surrogate mother is narrow.

Some of the goals of the Missiplicity project are to improve the basic understanding of canine reproductive biology and to replicate specific, exceptional dogs of high societal value, including assistance dogs for people with disabilities, and search-and-rescue dogs. A long-term goal is to develop relatively low-cost commercial dog-cloning services for the general public.

Misconceptions About Cloning

Despite the publicity and public scrutiny that have surrounded cloning, many myths about the technology exist, say experts.

A lot of the misconceptions people have about cloning come from science fiction, says Carlson. "People sometimes have the idea that clones emerge full grown from some kind of microwave oven."

Another common misconception people have is that a clone is going to actually be the exact same pet from which genetic material is taken, explains Carlson. "The most useful description that we can provide is that cloning is like having an identical twin born later rather than at the time of birth."

A lot of people think that if they clone their pet they will have their beloved animal back, says Dr. Irwin. "[However], just as identical twins are not exactly the same, a clone will never be exactly the same as its parent," he explains.

Pets will not be resurrected or immortalized, Carlson says. "This is not what we promise, and that's not what a clone is."

Wolff says that his decision to freeze Lily's cells was an emotional one, and that on some level, he would want a clone to be just like the original. "But I understand that this may not be the case," he says.

Why Clone Pets?

"People who want to clone their animal believe that it has an exceptional genetic endowment," says Carlson. For example, a pet may be particularly healthy, long-lived, beautiful, intelligent, or suited its owner.

That was certainly the case with Wolff. Some of the characteristics of Lily that encouraged him to consider cloning were the cat's tendency to meet him at the door and the animal's intelligence.

Most of the people who want to preserve their pet's cells in the hopes of future cloning had their animal spayed or neutered so natural reproduction is no longer possible, says Denniston. "A lot of these people [owners who want to clone their pets] have mutts or mixed breeds," he asserts, s, adding that it's hard to find a similar "Heinz 57" mix.

"A lot of people think it seems odd," he acknowledges. "But it doesn't seem odd to think that you would want an offspring of an animal because it was unique or interesting."

Doubting Dolly and Cloning Concerns

One of the main concerns scientists and the public seem to have about cloning is the health of the clone, say experts.

The famous Dolly the sheep, cloned in 1996, was euthanized in February 2003 because of a lung infection, says Carlson. She also had arthritis.

These health problems raised some concern in the public eye about cloning. "Any health condition she had was attributed to her having been clone," Carlson skeptically notes. Scientists are awaiting further Dolly-related research to answer any lingering questions regarding her health problems.

But it is widely accepted that clones can have a myriad health problems, including organ failure and obesity, says Carlson. Complications can vary from species to species. "We've seen poor outcomes in mice and good outcomes in pigs and goats," he explains. Overall, 25 percent of cloned animals have had serious health problems. Researchers hope to reduce this to 8 or 9 percent, a rate similar to in vitro fertilization in animals "There is concern that some of the clones are predisposed to health concerns that may shorten their life span or decrease their quality of life," agrees Dr. Irwin, adding that deformities can also be a problem.

Concern also exists for the welfare of the animals involved, he says. The process to attain one viable clone can involve more than a hundred or more failed attempts and even then, many embryos do not survive. The Humane Society of the United States condemns the commercial cloning of companion animals. Given the current pet overpopulation problem, which the Humane Society says costs millions of animals their lives and millions in public tax dollars each year, the cloning of pets has no social value and in fact may lead to increased animal suffering.

"Some people believe that it is selfish when so many animals need homes," acknowledges Dr. Irwin.

Wolff also acknowledges this argument as well. "They may be 100 percent right," he says, adding that he's considered adopting a cat rather than having Lily cloned. "But sometimes you love a particular animal so much, you consider cloning."


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