Cloning for Cash
Within the snug, yellow-walled confines of Texas A&M's reproductive sciences lab, a black-and-white portrait of a dog hangs with the dignified air of a head of state. It is not any dog, of course, but Missy, the mixed Border collie whose California owner believes she is so unique he wants to have her cloned.
For $2.3 million, the West Coast billionaire was able to buy himself a team of respected A&M veterinary scientists and a fiercely loyal PR operation to put a whimsical spin on some of the most controversial science of the age.
"She's a beautiful animal," notes Mark Westhusin, the scientist leading the project known as Missyplicity. A wagging virtual version of Missy greets visitors to the project's Web site, along with gushing prose dedicated to the venerable dog.
"Her eyes stared at me and I couldn't look away," writes her anonymous owner, describing his hopeless case of puppy love on seeing Missy at the pound. "She poked her nose through an opening and when I took her paw in my hand, she licked it."
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That love blossomed into a single-minded campaign to carbon-copy Missy for posterity. Others quickly caught wind of the miracle work happening in College Station. They begged for duplicates of their own irreplaceable pooches, kitties and even hamsters.
So in February Lou Hawthorne, the California entrepreneur who hooked up the billionaire with A&M, announced the launch of the Genetic Savings and Clone company, which will build on the Missyplicity research and offer cloning services to the pet-owning public.
"The whole business arose on demand," says Hawthorne, 39, a self-described ex-Silicon Valley geek. "Are we in it to make money? Yes. This is a business. We hope to make a lot of money."
So far, scores of people have paid to have their pets' DNA stored in the lab's gene bank. The price is $2,000 for "emergency" cases, in which an animal is either dead or dying, $1,500 when a pet is healthy but its owner wants to reserve storage space within two weeks, and $1,000 for others.
The owner must find a veterinarian to extract tissue and ship it to the lab, where it will be grown in culture and preserved in liquid nitrogen. Hawthorne hopes to install permanent Web cams in the gene bank so people can check on their pet's tissue whenever the urge strikes.
Cloning the critters initially will cost owners a cool "six figures," he says, but that price could dip below $20,000 once scientists refine the method. As yet, the team has not successfully cloned Missy, so all talk of prices is speculative.
Demand has been so great and investor interest so high, Hawthorne predicts Genetic Savings and Clone will go public in the future. The four principal A&M scientists on the project are shareholders in the company.
The folk behind Missyplicity excel at making their product seem warm and fuzzy, but not everyone melts with giddiness at the prospect of cloning house pets or at the project's cozy pairing of scientists with businessmen.
"They're trying to put a happy face on greed. It's a terrible diversion of science to making money," says Martin Teitel, executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics, a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Teitel derides as "IPO science" the dollar-driven research that has made the biotech industry a force on Wall Street.
Until Missy, cloning experiments served largely utilitarian aims such as replicating superior livestock or breeding genetically customized animals that produce pharmaceuticals in their milk or serve as organ donors to humans. Missyplicity marks the first time anyone has cloned for love.
"It's a luxury," acknowledges Westhusin, a straight-shooting 42-year-old with a Boy Scout face. But he adamantly defends the project's potential for groundbreaking science.
"You get a whole bunch of good stuff that comes along with it. It was way too great an opportunity to pass up," he says.
For all the idealism and cute flourishes surrounding the cult of Missy, there are corresponding ills.
Cloning, in general, is a messy business. Before successfully cloning Dolly from the DNA of an adult sheep in 1996, Scottish scientists suffered hundreds of reversals, including spontaneously aborted embryos and animals born with a variety of birth defects.
At A&M, in the attempt to duplicate one well-loved dog, about 60 others, many of them beagles, serve as egg donors and surrogate mothers for the would-be clone. As such, they routinely undergo surgery to have their eggs removed. After fertilizing the eggs with Missy's DNA, scientists implant viable embryos into the uteri of dogs, in hopes that they will carry them to term.
Hawthorne styles the dogs' hard labor at the lab as merely a stepping stone to future happiness. The project acquires them from businesses that breed lab dogs, which typically live and die in the cold, unloving cages of research institutions. Not Missyplicity's mutts, Hawthorne says.
"We bend over backwards to make sure the colony is positive from the dogs' point of view," he says. "In a perfect world, dogs would romp on hillsides all day."
Barring that, the project does hire students to take the animals out of their four- by eight-foot pens and play with them. After eight months they are put up for adoption. Hawthorne tries to imagine the bargain from the dogs' perspective.
" 'I'm getting transitioned into a loving home. I get my freedom. All they want is my reproductive tract.It sounds good to me,' " he says.
Michael W. Fox, a veterinarian and bioethicist at the American Humane Society in Washington, D.C., is aghast at what he calls the project's "anthropocentrism," the propensity to weigh ethical considerations solely on the basis of what is emotionally and economically beneficial to people.
"I see this as a tremendous exploitation of dogs for sentimental purposes. What benefit is this to the clone, to the animals?" he asks. "If you really love dogs, why not give money to help animals in need in your community?"
Westhusin believes the cloning work will lead to important discoveries about canine reproduction, yield new sterilization techniques to reduce unchecked breeding and allow scientists to save endangered species and replicate outstanding Seeing Eye and rescue dogs.
"You can just dream and dream and dream of all the applications that can benefit mankind," he says of the possibilities of cloning and genetic engineering. "It's just phenomenal."
Sporting Levi's and a plaid oxford shirt, Westhusin circulates among his graduate students like a laid-back dad. One young man complains that a fellow student is refusing to work during spring break. "I'll talk to her," he says with preternatural calm.
Growing up on a Kansas farm, Westhusin saw how new technologies shaped agricultural productivity. He recalls poring over catalogs to select the semen of exceptional bulls to inseminate the family's cows. The farm boy would go on to become a pioneer in cloning, first making international news in 1987 as part of a private-sector team that cloned bulls.
"It's a natural thing for man to develop technologies to make life better," he says.
But Stuart Newman, a professor of cell biology at New York Medical College, believes the role of scientists is to understand the building blocks of life, not to alter them. He has spent years studying limb development in chicken embryos to determine how genes respond to medicines and the environment.
"Cloning is not the way evolution generated reproductive processes," Newman says. "The greatest danger is [the idea] that life forms can just be taken and molded to our specifications. It's taking part of the world which up till now hasn't been subject to manufacturing and bringing it into the processes by which we make objects. I think it's a bad idea, and I think it's a waste of resources."
Westhusin, a devout Catholic, says he ceaselessly wrestles with the ethical dimensions of his work, and his conscience is clear.
"I can see the tremendous benefits it can have on mankind," he says. "You have ethical obligations to pursue research. I don't know of any better way to serve my God."
He opens an incubator that looks like a fridge, revealing several samples of skin tissue. If the team members succeed, they will transform these rubbery-looking splotches into carbon copies of the dogs, cats and livestock from which they came.
"This is not a resurrection," he says. "It's the technology that allows us to re-create animals."
E-mail John Suval at email@example.com.
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