October 26, 2017

To Clone or Not to Clone

As technology advances and medicine can make miracles reality, we need to ask ourselves: Is every breakthrough worth the cost?
By Greg Kelly
"She looks the same, smells the same, and has most of the same habits—and I never taught any of them to her." Those are the words of the family of Nubia, the first puppy to be cloned in the United States.

“People are making a big mistake if they think they’re going to get their old pet back.” Those are the words of an Ivy League animal ethics professor who has serious concerns about the effects of cloning. Clearly the topic of pet cloning is a controversial one.

As America’s love for its pets deepens and the wonders of biotechnology magnify, there will be a need for some clarity. As authorities on animal science and welfare, it behooves veterinarians to understand the science of cloning and be able to speak to clients about the issues and debate surrounding it.

What Is Cloning?
Fundamentally, a cloned pet is a genetic twin born at a later date. The cloning procedure involves injecting preserved cells from the original dog into a hollow egg from a female dog, a jolt of electricity to help them fuse, and implanting the resulting embryo into a surrogate mother dog that carries the pup to birth. This embryo contains the complete DNA of the original dog and that dog only (Figure).

The end result is a hereditary facsimile that is supposed to mirror the original pet’s characteristics, from appearance to disposition to intelligence. Research has shown that cloned animals have the same health traits and life expectancy as other pets.1 Although the technology of pet cloning continues to advance, it’s important to remember that having the right pet is more complicated—both nature and nurture play a role.

At this point in pet cloning, money can buy happiness. Billionaire media couple Barry Diller and his fashion mogul wife, Diane von Furstenberg, recently paid $100,000 to have their Jack Russell terrier cloned.2

Animal cloning isn’t really a young science. It all started with mice in the late 1970s, according to the National Institutes of Health,3 then came genetically identical cows, sheep, and chickens. It was widely reported when Dolly the Sheep became the first mammal to be cloned successfully by Scottish scientists at the University of Edinburgh back in 1996 (after 276 attempts). The first cloned pet (Snuppy, an Afghan hound) was born over a decade ago in South Korea; the cost in 2005 was $100,000.

Pet Cloning in the United States
Once available only in Asia, dog and cat cloning is now available in the United States. Texas-based ViaGen, originally a livestock cloning company, began cloning pets in 2015 and remains the only company in the United States to do so. Last year, ViaGen Pets cloned the first American puppy (Nubia, a female Jack Russell Terrier) for $50,000.

ViaGen has produced thousands of cloned horses and livestock over the past 15 years and is now approaching over 100 cloned puppies and kittens, said Lauren Aston, the company’s marketing coordinator. “We are having healthy, happy puppies and kittens born each week, as word gets out that we are offering this service.”

The company, which began operations in 2002, offers several services for pet owners. “The genetic preservation fee is $1600,” Aston said. “This initial fee, plus all paid storage fees, are applied toward the cloning fee whenever the pet owner is ready to proceed to that next step.” The fee for dog cloning is $50,000; it’s $25,000 to clone a cat. The arrangement calls for 50% of the cloning fee to be paid upon entering into the deal, and the remaining 50% is paid when a cloned puppy or kitten goes home at 8 to 12 weeks of age, Aston said.

When it comes to professional veterinarian involvement in the science and practice of cloning, Aston explained that her company "works closely with veterinarians and their staff to help them educate and offer clients options for preserving, protecting, and memorializing a relationship with a beloved animal companion.” She believes veterinarians “are essential for genetic preservation where they perform a very simple skin punch biopsy.”

In an effort to build awareness and support, Aston said that ViaGen Pets attends many veterinary conferences throughout the year to educate the profession about their services. “We’ve been thrilled with the warm reception and interest from the veterinary community,” she said.

As a testament to the excitement of pet cloning, Aston said more than 140 veterinarians (and more added weekly) are now part of ViaGen Pets Veterinary Network. “This network allows veterinarians to enhance their practice offerings with support from the ViaGen Pets team,” she explained.

Regarding the ethical considerations of pet cloning, Aston noted that many people are opposed to any form of reproduction for companion animals because too many cats and dogs already lack suitable homes. “We fully understand this position and support shelters and adoption whenever possible,” she said. “However, we also see many clients who are determined to enjoy an identical twin of their once-in-a-lifetime companion, which this technology now makes possible. It’s difficult to express in words the joy that our clients demonstrate upon receiving their pups or kittens. Many of our clients are now sharing their journey with us by keeping us updated on their pet’s activities. It’s truly amazing to see the happiness that these puppies and kittens are bringing to their new families.”

Pros and Cons
Alice Villalobos, DVM, former president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics and a pioneer in the field of cancer care for companion animals, looks favorably on the prospects of pet cloning: “As a veterinary oncologist also focused on palliative care and hospice for dogs and cats, I see how this could become a more accessible opportunity for those who want to have an option for a continuum with a genetically similar pet who they are on the verge of losing. I’ve had cloned dogs as patients and the owners are very happy with their decision,” said the California veterinarian.

Even as the science of pet cloning comes into its own, there is some opposition to the practice from pet lovers and veterinary professionals.

For sure, powerful emotions surround Americans and their pets. With so many pet owners considering their pets to be part of the family, these life-and-death issues are certain to generate controversy and passion.

John Woestendiek, a Pulitzer prize–winning investigative reporter and author of Dog, Inc.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend, has some decidedly negative opinions about pet cloning.

In an interview with Scientific American, Woestendiek said, “An argument can be made that dog cloning is not only adding to the dog overpopulation problem, but causing a lot of pain and suffering along the way.”4 He views cloning “as an insult to the original dog—the equivalent of saying ‘I can easily (assuming I am wealthy enough) have another you created.’ The fact is you can’t. And it seems unfair to the clone as well, in terms of the expectations the dog owner will likely have for it.”

The major difference between the original and a clone, said Woestendiek, is “personality, which even the cloners now admit (they didn’t at first) can’t be duplicated. Given that much of personality is shaped during the first months of puppy life, much of it will probably already be in place before a dog cloning customer finally gets his or her pet (after 3 to 4 months or possibly longer, given quarantine issues, if the cloning is done overseas). A clone is a twin, and most of us know how different, personality wise, twins can be.”

Companion pet cloning falls into the category of “just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should,” said Woestendiek.

The Veterinarian's Angle
When it comes to educating the public about pet cloning, veterinarians can have a considerable impact. Pet cloning isn’t going away. And with such a peculiar mix of science and sentiment involved, the outlook of a trained expert is valuable. Very few professionals beyond the veterinarian have the training, talent, and technique to alert pet owners about the realities of this approach. It benefits veterinary professionals to educate themselves on the matter so as to better counsel their clients.

Genetic preservation is the first step in the cloning process. Today, more and more veterinarians are asked to take a pet’s DNA sample. Many pet owners have a “wait and see” attitude on pet cloning. Asking for a sample of the pet’s genetic material and freezing it allows them to hope.

As to the ethics of veterinarians in pet cloning, James A. Serpell, PhD, professor of Animal Ethics & Welfare at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania—the Ivy League professor mentioned at the beginning of the article—recommended a path of full discourse by encouraging people to understand what they are doing. “Try to make them think twice,” he said.

Dr. Serpell said the process of cloning is not easy and there are still many errors—lots of fetuses are aborted or born with severe abnormalities. “This brings up animal welfare considerations,” he said. “There are also considerations for the egg donor animals and surrogates. Companies often use purpose-bred female dogs as surrogates. And it’s not really clear what happens to them afterwards.”

He also has concerns about the health of the clones “because we don’t have a long enough track record to know whether they’re likely to live long and healthy lives.”

The most serious issue, according to Dr. Serpell, is when “people are made to believe that the animal they get back will be a replica of the original pet. That’s a huge mistake. They may be genetically identical, but a lot can happen after conception. It’s classic nature versus nurture, and with dogs and cats an awful lot is nurture.”

Dr. Serpell said, “It’s fair for veterinarians to explain to clients that they’re making a big mistake if they think they’re going to get they’re old pet back. They won’t be. Veterinarians must make the client understand what goes into cloning. Know what happens to the other embryos—some may be destroyed, some may be deformed or disabled. They should also be aware that the surrogate dogs may have a very uncertain future. Also, they should realize that our society already has an excess of dogs, just waiting to be adopted. There are plenty of perfectly good dogs available if people want one.”

Attempting to remove emotion from the mix, a more sensible application of cloning could include “working animals” (ie, police K9s, search-and-rescue dogs, and other service dogs), suggested Dr. Serpell.

Since these dogs are routinely neutered but later are found to have fine service abilities, cloning is a practical solution. “This would be an opportunity to re-create some very successful dogs. That would be more ethically palatable,” said Dr. Serpell.

 
Greg Kelly is a long-time health care writer and editor who has written for Physician’s Money DigestTM, Dentist’s Money DigestTM, and Veterinarian’s Money Digest®. He lives at the Jersey Shore and welcomes comments at gregkelly@monmouth-beachlife.com.
References:
  1. Clones of Dolly the Sheep age well [video]. Wall Street Journal website. http://www.wsj.com/video/clones-of-dolly-the-sheep-age-well/688F959C-4926-42A3-8D32-62F50CE95CC4.html. Published July 26, 2016. Accessed October 4, 2017.
  2. Roy J. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg cloned their dog, a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The Cut website. https://www.thecut.com/2016/03/barry-diller-and-dvf-cloned-their-dog.html. Published March 15, 2016. Accessed October 2, 2017.
  3. National Human Genome Research Institute. Cloning. National Institutes of Health website. https://www.genome.gov/25020028/cloning-fact-sheet/. Reviewed March 21, 2017. Accessed October 2, 2017.
  4. Hecht J. Yes you can clone your dog, but would you want to? Scientific American website. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/dog-spies/yes-you-can-clone-your-dog-but-would-you-want-to/. Published August 17, 2015. Accessed October 2, 2017.


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