Saturday, August 9, 2008

Cute Science: Commercial dog cloning

South Korean researchers at Seoul National University and RNL Bio have produced the first commercial dog clones, a litter of five pitbull puppies. The customer is a Californian woman who lost her dog Booger two years ago. Skin cells from Booger's ear were used to produce the cloned embryos, which were then gestated in surrogate dogs. Pet cloning is prohibitively expensive, upwards of 50-100K per animal, so the market for this is small. Top police dogs and other valuable animals are being reproduced around the world for noncommercial applications. RNL Bio isn't wasting any time getting the word out about this new business. CEO Ra Jeong-Chan was quoted saying they would produce 300 dogs for wealthy owners over the next year and "will consider cloning camels for rich people in the Middle East."

Seoul National University, in collaboration with RNL Bio, a biotech firm, has been responsible for many recent cloning advancements and scandals. SNU cloned the first dog, an Afghan hound, in 2005. It was also at SNU that Hwang Woo-Suk famously fabricated data in papers claiming the cloning of human embryonic stem cells.

LOLclones, anyone?

Of course, this will spark renewed debate over the ethics of cloning. Humane societies have already come out in opposition of RNL Bio's actions, claiming that the money for cloning new animals would be better used to save thousands of sick and stray animals, animals that are already alive. The cloning process is still rather crude, they point out, requiring many attempts to get successful implantation, which requires many surrogate animals. Human cloning is even more complicated, and many see these continued animal-research successes as a slippery slope that ends with replicated humans, genetic engineering, and eugenics. After Dolly, in the mid-1990's, there was a firestorm of political debate on the issue. It even trickled into popular culture (see GATTACA and The 6th Day for one good and one horrible movie take on cloning, eugenics, etc). A lot of the controversy over cloning is focused on research that doesn't actually involve full-formed clones, but rather stems cells, gene manipulations, and the production of chimeras for medical benefit. This sort of tinkering with nature scares people.

I think many understandably have a gut "ick" reaction to the possibility of human cloning and related research. There are few issues with more moral and ethical ambiguity. Cloning brings to question all sorts of philosophical quandaries - personhood, continuity, existence - and forces people to think about what makes them who they are, which is a difficult introspective task. Is a person meaningfully described by their DNA? How much of you do you need to still be you? How much of you is a product of your environment? It's not an easy issue for people to deal with, and it never will be, but the public's apprehensiveness to cloning research is primarily based on fear of its misuse. People will always fear abuse of scientific knowledge (often justifiably, just look to the Manhattan Project's spoils, or bioterrorism) but the mere potential that one day someone will exploit cloning at the pain of others does not preclude need for the fundamental research, the potential benefits to society are too great.

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