It's a dog's life (again)

Observations on cloning

A California company will give five dog owners the chance to have a favourite pet genetically copied and brought back to life later this month. BioArts International has arranged an online auction to decide which dog lovers will qualify: at starting bids between $100,000 (£51,000) and $180,000.

But questions are being asked. After pet cloning, how soon before grieving parents demand a cloned copy of their dead child? What about fanatics trying to revive dead dictators, as in the 1978 film The Boys from Brazil, in which exiled Nazis plot to clone Hitler?

The company has the sole licence to employ the somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) cloning patents used by the Roslin Institute in Scotland to create the first animal duplicate, Dolly the sheep, in 1996. Alongside a picture of a man and his dog, the BioArts website asks, "What if you could be best friends - again?" The chief executive, Lou Hawthorne, boasts of cloning three copies of Missy, a half-collie, half-Siberian husky who died in 2002. Missy was the family dog of the University of Phoenix founder John Sperling, who gave $3.7m to Texas A&M University to reproduce his favourite pet. Hawthorne reports that the trio of new Missys have all the characteristics of the original, including an unlikely passion for steamed broccoli.

This is not the first time animals have been cloned commercially. In 2003, the American Mule Racing Association funded the cloning of racing mules. Similar technology has now been used to replicate thoroughbred horses.

However, the BioArts project has attracted attention because of the involvement of the disgraced South Korean geneticist Hwang Woo-suk, who in 2005 concocted the first cloned dog, an Afghan hound called Snuppy, and was the brain behind the cloning of Missy. His claims to have cloned human embryonic stem cells in the learned journal Science in 2004 and 2005 proved a sensation.

But Hwang, 55, was forced out of Seoul National University and stripped of government funding when it was discovered that his stem cell experiments were compromised by eggs donated by female researchers. Hwang is currently on trial for fraud and embezzlement and is banned from experimenting in the field of human cloning.

Few can doubt Hwang's expertise in cloning dogs. His team at Seoul successfully cloned sniffer dogs for the Japanese and cloned at least 26 dogs in the past three years.

Hawthorne says he has little choice but to work with Hwang. "I know the association is going to be controversial," he says, but adds: "Simply, he's the best when it comes to dog cloning."

Some scientists warn that clones are prone to multiple health problems and premature death. Hawthorne responds that the success rate is one in four; he offers money back if the cloned dog is not like a twin of the original and does not survive for 12 months.

Others suggest customers may feel duped. A cloned dog is "likely to be a totally unknown dog, just as if you went to the pound and adopted another unknown animal", says Dr Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at the Massachusetts biotech company Advanced Cell Technology. "If anyone thinks they're going to get Fluffy back, they're gravely mistaken."