When Lee Byeon Chun looks back four years to when he helped clone the world's first dog, he confesses it was a stressful time. All of his colleagues, he says, were obsessed with the puppy an Afghan hound named "Snuppy," overanalyzing its every move and whimper in the lab. "I would sleep there sometimes," says Lee, who now heads a team of scientists and researchers at Seoul National University. Today, Lee does not devote all his waking hours to Snuppy, who still lives in the campus lab kennel. He now has a lab full of other cloned canines and puppies to watch over, whose development he watches with equal care.
That pack is part of a fledging industry that South Korea is leading: the cloning and sale of pet dogs. Since Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996 by Ian Wilmut at the Roslin Institute in Scotland, scientists around the world have cloned everything from cats, monkeys and fruit flies to horses, rabbits, cows and wolves mostly for non-commercial uses. Dogs are notoriously complex to clone, and Korea is the only country where researchers have successfully done the deed. (See pictures of presidential First Dogs.)
That there is money to be made on that fact not been lost on RNL BIO, the company that Lee and his team do research for, which sold a $50,000 cloned Pit Bull Terrier to an American client last year. And RNL is not alone on this commercial frontier. Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, another Seoul lab run by Hwang Woo Suk who led Snuppy's cloning at SNU but was later shunned by the international scientific community for fabricating research on human embryos, made headlines in early February for cloning a Labrador named "Lancey" for a Florida couple who paid $150,000 for the pup. Lee says he's cloned 35 dogs and five wolves in the past four years; Sooam, which is associated with a U.S.-based company called BioArts International, says it has cloned 75 dogs.
Though South Korea's labs are the only ones in the world commercially cloning pets today, they may discover their fledgling business is not exactly a growth industry. There are ethical concerns over commercial pet cloning, and at a roughly $150,000 per pooch, the service is currently too expensive for most dog lovers to contemplate. Prices could fall to closer to $50,000 as more cost-effective techniques are developed, but for now, cloning "service" dogs like "sniffer" dogs used to detect cancer and narcotics seems to be a more viable venture. Nearly a third of the 35 dogs cloned by Lee's team, for instance, are sniffers, and no wonder: South Korea's customs service reportedly bought seven Labrador Retrievers cloned from a top drug-sniffing dog for $60,000 each. The labs have also cloned endangered dog breeds; last year Sooam cloned 17 endangered Tibetan Mastiffs. (See photos of the Sealyham Terrier, a breed on the brink of dying out.)
But supplying bereaved pet owners with a copies of their deceased pets and police with new K9 units is not the only goal for many of these Korean scientists. Since canines share more disease patterns with humans than any other animal species apart from mice, animal reproduction experts like Lee and Kim Min Kyu at Chungnam National University see dogs as a great medical resource. "Dogs have similiar physiology and can communicate with humans,' explains Lee. He is currently working on producing a "transgenic" dog or a dog whose DNA is manipulated to either delete or introduce new genes to enable scientists to better understand the role of genes in certain diseases and fast track treatments and cures for diseases like diabetes and Alzheimers. But it won't be easy. "Dog reproductive physiology is so unique," explains Chungnam's Kim, who has the same ambitions as Lee. Kim predicts his team won't get the job done for another three to five years.
In the meantime, the small world of canine cloning has become fiercely competitive. Some of the players are duking it out over who owns the patent to commercially clone animals in the first place. Last year, California-based BioArts International, which says it has the sole worldwide license for cloning dogs after it bought the so-called Dolly patent, accused RNL BIO of black-market cloning by using technology covered in that patent. "They did not develop core cloning technology," says Lou Hawthorne, CEO of BioArts. RNL BIO, however, insists that the company and its researchers are operating under another, dog-specific patent the so-called "Snuppy patent" and has not violated any licensing agreements.
How this battle in Korea' clone wars plays out remains to be seen. But one thing is sure the SPCAs of the world can rest easy for now. It will be a long time before cloning the family pet is more popular than buying a new one.