At first glane, Snuppy seems like a perfectly ordinary 7-month-old Afghan puppy. His black and beige coat, still a dense, cottony cushion of baby fur, has yet to sprout the long silky hairs that distinguish his breed. Like any other puppy, he's eager to please and itching to explore the world around him. The sight of his favorite lamb-flavored snacks or the arrival of a new visitor sends him into a frenzy of excited jumping.
But as the world learned to its astonishment last summer, Snuppy is no ordinary pup. He's a clone, his genes derived not from the egg and sperm of a mother and father but from a single cell taken from the ear of an adult Afghan hound. That makes Snuppy the first dog created by cloning, the still relatively new--and for some, troubling--branch of biotechnology. Other mammals have been cloned, starting with Dolly the sheep back in 1996 and followed by mice, cows, pigs, rabbits, horses and, most recently, cats. But dogs had remained elusive--until now.
Snuppy is the product of a lab in which the painstaking process of cloning has become routine. Years of exasperating experimentation, countless mishaps and dispiriting failures have produced a technique so finely tuned that it can tackle even the most stubborn cloning challenges, such as dogs. And it suggests that pretty much any mammal can be cloned--given enough expertise.
That's the key word. Plenty of labs do mammalian cloning these days, but the group that produced Snuppy is, like the puppy himself, extraordinary. With striking regularity, Woo Suk Hwang and his 45-person team have cranked out one cloning breakthrough after another from his laboratory of veterinary science at Seoul National University in South Korea. In recognition of those feats, his cloning techniques--embodied by a history-making puppy--have been chosen TIME's Most Amazing Invention of 2005.
Snuppy was just one of the major steps forward for Hwang during this busy year. He also refined his human-cell-cloning process to yield the first stem cells from patients with diseases, bringing medicine a step closer to the possibility of curing illnesses from Alzheimer's to diabetes with a patient's own rejection-proof tissues. Hwang and his colleagues "are the world leaders at doing this," says Douglas Melton, a co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
So how is it that countries like the U.S. are playing follow the leader? Partly, at least, by default. While the Bush Administration has banned the use of federal funding for any research involving cloning--including embryonic stem cells, aside from a short list of "grandfathered" cell lines--South Korea's President Moo Hyun Roh has given unprecedented political, financial and social support to cloning research. Unwilling to squander its huge and potentially lucrative lead, the South Korean government last month created the first stem-cell bank. The World Stem Cell Hub, as it is called, will create some 100 human stem-cell lines under Hwang's direction. These will then be distributed to researchers around the globe, letting them bypass the tricky step of creating the stem cells and move straight to the difficult task of coaxing those cells into tissues that could treat disease.