Puppy Love: Genetic Savings and Clone founder John Sperling with Missy, the animal who started it all.
At the Sausalito-based Genetic Savings and Clone, your pet can be yours–forever
By Joy Lanzendorfer
In the techno-thriller The 6th Day, main character Adam Gibson, played by our now-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, goes to a company called RePet to see about getting his dog, Oliver, cloned before his daughter finds out that the animal has died. At RePet, all a person has to do is bring in a hair from the pet to be cloned. From that, the company can create an exact, full-grown replica of the pet that even has its predecessor’s memories and personality.
The RePet salesman assures Adam that the new dog will be so much like Oliver that his daughter won’t even notice the difference. But Adam is concerned about this strange creature coming into his house, pontificating about the cycle of life and calling the clone a “freak of nature.”
“Will it be dangerous? Will it have a soul?” he asks.
According to the subtitles at the beginning of The 6th Day, the movie is set in the “near future,” but “sooner than you think.”
To some extent, the movie was right. Only four years after its release, a company in Sausalito called Genetic Savings and Clone (GSC) is now offering to clone your pet cat for $50,000.
Of course, unlike RePet, GSC isn’t able to give clients an identical full-grown animal with the old pet’s memories. What they can do is take the donor pet’s DNA and, using that and only that, reproduce a new animal that is like the old one in physical appearance and behavioral tendencies.
Think of it as the older pet’s later-born identical twin.
This year, GSC will clone nine cats, six from clients and three from staff members. The cloning begins this month and will be completed sometime in November. The company expects it will be able to clone more cats next year and hopes the price will drop to $25,000 in the next two years. Eventually, GSC hopes the price will settle into the low five-figure or high four-figure sum.
Two years ago, GSC’s founder financed the world’s first and only cloned cat named CC, short for Carbon Copy. The company is also working on cloning a dog and hopes to have success later this year.
But the concern Schwarzenegger’s Adam Gibson voiced in The 6th Day is typical for many people. The word “clone” brings up a host of strong emotions, what with its depiction in science fiction and the recently released horror flick Godsend, the controversy swirling around stem-cell research and the serious ethical questions surrounding human cloning. On the GSC website forum (www.savingsandclone.com), one can read chiding posts with titles like “Inhumane” and “You guys are disgusting!” that range from talk of how God wouldn’t like cloning to how there are already enough pets in the world as it is.
The new technology of cloning could contribute to our understanding of the nature of life and personality, as well as help cure diseases and solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. On the other hand, it could also lead to dangerous complications and unprecedented moral and ethical problems. Either way, considering that there’s only a handful of cloned animals in the world, is it too early for this new technology to go commercial?
Along with cat cloning, GSC offers what is called “gene banking,” in which pet owners preserve the DNA of their cat or dog for possible future use with no obligation to clone. For a living pet, gene banking costs $895 plus a yearly maintenance fee of $100.
To gene-bank an animal, GSC sends the owner a kit to take to the pet’s veterinarian. The vet then uses the kit to take a small skin sample from the animal, probably from its stomach or mouth. The customer returns the kit to GSC, where technicians remove water from the sample cells, replacing it with a special liquid that keeps the cells intact when they are subsequently frozen with liquid nitrogen. Cells can be kept that way for decades until the client is ready to consider cloning the animal.
Dead pets can be gene-banked too, as long as there are still live cells in the body. If a client takes a pet to the vet within five days of its death, the doctor can take a larger tissue sample from the animal for gene banking. And because it’s a time-sensitive operation and there are more cells to maintain, GSC charges more to gene-bank a dead pet: $1,395 for the kit and a $150-per-year maintenance fee.
But for gene banking to work, clients have to make sure to store the pet’s body correctly before they get it to the vet. “Some people freeze their pets, thinking that’s the right way to preserve the body, but the ice crystals damage the cells,” says GSC spokesperson Ben Carlson. “Others don’t keep the body cool enough, and it decomposes, unfortunately.”
While this kind of talk is too Frankensteinian for many people, these are the sort of hard facts pet owners have to face when considering gene banking or cloning. But for many, the potential future options are worth the trouble, expense and general ickiness.
Jayne Lange of Menlo Park has gene-banked two of her dogs, Akeya and Waka, two Shiba Inus, a breed she got when she was living in Japan. While both dogs were alive when she gene-banked them, Akeya has since passed away.
A single mother of three, Lange says, “I wanted to be able to give my children the option that if at some point they wanted to clone an animal like our dogs, they could do that.”
Lange, who works in biotech, has realistic expectations about the cloning process, but many other people who approach GSC do not. “There are people who, because there are a lot of myths and misinformation out there about cloning, contact us thinking that we can basically bring their beloved pet back to life,” says Carlson. “When we become aware that this is someone’s motives, we explain to them what a clone really is. We always decline business from people who just want to bring their pets back to life.”
While GSC does not view cloning as a substitute for the grieving process, the company’s critics say that it nonetheless takes advantage of a grieving pet owner’s emotional state. “As the cloning is set up now, it’s a rip-off,” says David Magnus, co-director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. “The reason why people would want to have a pet cloned is to either have the animal live forever or to have one exactly like the one they have. But cloning cannot guarantee that.”
The new pet will only act like the old pet to the extent that genetics influence behavior, something that is still unclear after centuries of the nature-vs.-nurture debate. CC, for example, has a different personality than her donor, Rainbow. While CC is playful and outgoing, Rainbow is more reserved.
Even more startling, Rainbow and CC don’t look alike. Rainbow is a chubby calico with splotches of brown and black spots. CC is a slender tiger-tabby with gray-and-white stripes. The differences have to do with the way calico patterns in a cat’s coat develop. Identical genes produce different-colored cats because of random changes that occur in the genes as the embryo develops. Genetic Savings and Clone offers clients a money-back guarantee if the new kitten doesn’t look like the original donor.
The company explains the reality of cloning to its clients, but though some people may understand the situation intellectually, in their hearts they may still be hoping to get their old pet back.
“We recently lost a cocker spaniel that my wife and I got in our 20s,” says Magnus. “We were young and he was a puppy. As we grew older, we got more sedentary and so did he. If we got a clone of our dog today, we would have a healthy, rambunctious puppy again, and it’s likely we wouldn’t be happy with him because he would be different from our old dog. We would then treat him differently, and he would become a totally different dog.”
Genetic Savings and Clone, however, says its clients come for reasons other than to bring back a dead or dying pet. For example, in the case of pet owners with a mixed breed, cloning offers a way to reproduce the unique breed in a way that natural reproduction cannot.
The company has also seen interest from people with purebred pets who want to maximize a set of genes that have meshed particularly well with their family. Cloning may soon present breeders with some interesting predicaments. For example, there’s no precedent for showing a cloned purebred cat in a cat show, but what if someone wants to do it?
“There aren’t any rules about showing a cloned cat, but it would not be looked on favorably,” says Kay DeVilbiss, president of the International Cat Association. “We might not even know if someone cloned a cat–ethics can’t be legislated. But cloning a cat would take all the challenge and fun out of the quest of breeding the perfect cat.”
As anyone who has seen feral cats running around the neighborhood or who has worked with abandoned and homeless animals can attest, there are too many cats in the world. Because of this, many animal lovers are critical of pet cloning. It seems wrong to them to spend $50,000 on a cloned animal when there are so many that need homes.
“To me, cloning animals is obscene,” says Punky Pam, a member of Sonoma People for Animal Rights. “I think that if people lose an animal, they should honor that animal by going to a shelter and getting a new one.”
Genetic Savings and Clone claims it is actually reducing the pet population. The company buys the eggs used in cloning from spay clinics, waste that would otherwise be discarded. In receiving this new source of revenue, clinics can then spay hundreds of animals for every one animal GSC produces. The result is a net reduction in the pet population.
Critics counter that this is just an excuse.
“Whenever a company does something bad to animals, they say they are helping them,” says Peter Wood, a research associate for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “They’re not supporting shelters; they’re getting cheap tissue from animals who are killed to make more animals. That’s sort of like, I take you to the hospital after I run you over with my car.”
On the other hand, cloning does have the potential to help endangered species. While cloning is an inefficient means of preserving an animal population compared to such methods as habitat preservation and captive breeding, it may be able to increase the gene pool of an extremely bottlenecked population by cloning old or deceased animals.
Much of the concern surrounding cloning animals comes from the fact that a large percentage of the resulting animals suffer from “cloning-related illnesses.” These sicknesses vary from severe to mild, from brain defects to viral infections. Depending on whom you listen to, the percentage of cloned animals affected by cloning-related illnesses ranges from 25 percent to all of them.
“The number is much higher than 25 percent if you count animals that were malformed or died before birth,” says Magnus. “The record is not very good. There’s not one clear case of a cloned animal with a healthy, normal, full-functioning life.”
The first cloned animal, Dolly the sheep, was obese, had arthritis and died young. Some scientists have said her symptoms pointed to premature aging. It has been theorized that her cells still thought they were the age of her genetic donor.
Genetic Savings and Clone points to CC as an example of a healthy cloned animal. Furthermore, the company takes issue with the assertion that cloned animals age prematurely. “Because Dolly was so famous for being a clone, people often attribute any problem that she may have had to her having been cloned,” says Carlson. “But there’s no evidence that her illnesses had anything to do with cloning.” But GSC does admit that cloning produces at least some unhealthy animals. The company offers a money-back guarantee if certain common cloning-related illnesses occur in the animal.
As for what they do with the sick animals, GSC’s policy is to euthanize any suffering animals, but to otherwise find adoptive homes for them.
Animal rights activists find this policy unacceptable. “It’s cruel and irresponsible to do what they are doing,” says Wood. “To clone an animal that may suffer as a result of its creation is wrong.”
Whatever you think of cloning, you have to admire the science behind it. There are two methods for cloning an animal. One is called “nuclear transfer” and the other “chromatin transfer.” Nuclear transfer is the way in which Dolly and CC were cloned, with a scientist taking an egg from a cat and enucleating it–removing all genetic information so that it is like a blank slate. Then a cell from a donor cat, which contains all the DNA of the animal, is put into the enucleated egg. Next, the egg is stimulated so that it starts dividing as if sperm had fertilized it. Finally, it is transferred into a surrogate mother that, if all goes well, carries the fetus to term.
Very few embryos make it to term with nuclear transfer, according to Sonoma State University biology professor Murali Pillai. “Cloning has not been completely successful,” he says. “Only one out of 88 or so embryos transferred actually take, a little over 1 percent of the animals.”
But chromatin transfer, a new technology that GSC has licensed, has made cloning more efficient. “One of the reasons cloning is so inefficient is because a lot of cloned embryos never succeed in developing to term,” agrees Carlson. “Chromatin transfer reduces that problem.”
During nuclear transfer, an adult cell, one that has already grown up to be a muscle or skin cell or whatever, is placed into an egg; the egg then reverts the cell into its embryonic state (known as dedifferentiating), reprogramming it to become the cloned animal.
That’s a lot to ask of one little egg.
With chromatin transfer, the cell is treated by a group of chemicals so that it dedifferentiates before it is ever put into the egg. Thus, the egg’s only job is to program the cell forward to develop the clone. Genetic Savings and Clone is optimistic it will see better results with the new technique. It is this breakthrough that caused the company to bring the technology to the public.
A dog named Missy is responsible for the founding of GSC. The company’s founder, John Sperling, is the same entrepreneur who started the University of Phoenix educational franchise. He owned Missy. She was a beautiful dog, part border collie, who understood commands and reportedly had Lassie-like moments of leading humans through pouring rain to sick animals in need.
In 1997, shortly after Dolly was cloned, Sperling decided he wanted to find out about cloning Missy. He enlisted Mill Valley resident Lou Hawthorne, now GSC’s CEO, to look into the issue. “Lou came back and said it hypothetically might be possible to clone Missy, but it would cost millions of dollars,” says Carlson. “John said to go ahead with that.”
From that conversation, the Missyplicity Project was born. With a $3.7 million grant from Sperling, Texas A&M University began to try to clone a dog. But cloning a dog has proved to be very complicated, even by cloning standards. Unlike humans or farm animals, there is no major commercial interest in studying the reproductive physiology of dogs, so scientists were immediately faced with a gap in knowledge that made dog cloning difficult.
Dog cloning also comes with a group of logistical hurdles that make it more complicated than cloning other animals. For example, dogs go into heat irregularly, which makes it hard to predict transplant times of fertilized eggs. Dog ovum are transparent, so scientists have to find a way to literally see the egg before they can do their work. Also, spay clinics usually harvest immature eggs, but pregnancy in dogs can only happen in mature eggs. Thus, ways to mature ova must be produced before they can even begin to clone the dog.
The Missyplicity Project decided to clone the slightly less complex cat while still working on the dog. In 2002 the project reaped success with the birth of CC. So far, though she looks different from her genetic donor, CC seems perfectly healthy.
When word of the Missyplicity Project spread, Texas A&M was deluged with calls from people interested in getting their cat or dog cloned. Sperling, ever the entrepreneur, saw a business opportunity, and Genetic Savings and Clone was born.
Meanwhile, Missy died in July 2002 at age 15.
“It had been John’s hope that Missy and her clone would meet,” says Carlson. “John had hoped that if they could spend time together, the clone would take on some of Missy’s behavioral traits. But unfortunately, that’s not going to happen now.”
Many people dislike animal cloning because they see it as one step closer to human cloning. Research at GSC does not in any way aid human cloning, and, because of species differences, it is not likely to be used by scientists studying the subject. Still, as increasing numbers of animals are cloned, some are nervous that human cloning is not far behind. Whether it’s stem-cell cloning or a complete human clone, the potential benefits and problems of this issue are huge.
Aside from giving her children a chance to have a pet like their childhood dog some day, Lange sees gene-banking her dogs as a way of taking a stand on the issue of human stem-cell research.
“One aspect of gene-banking my dogs is as a political statement about all this nonsense against cloning human cells,” she says. “The therapeutic benefits of being able to clone human cells are endless. Imagine if we could get someone’s spine to regenerate, like if we could rebuild Christopher Reeve’s spine? People are naive about what stem-cell cloning is. They think it’s a test-tube baby. It’s just not. It’s just cells in a dish.”
Others, such as Daniel McConchie of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in Chicago, look at all potential human cloning–whether just cells or an entire person–as problematic. “We do think animal cloning will help to make the technology more efficient, but there’s no way to do human cloning without experimentation on human beings, which is dangerous,” he says.
On its website, GSC itself seems cautious about human cloning, saying that since it spends millions making the technology safe for animals, the company views it “as ironic and highly problematic that no such investment in safeguards is occurring in the human cloning field.”
Sperling has so far invested $10 million into GSC and will probably put in another $5 million more. The company expects to break even next year. It is no longer associated with Texas A&M, but has labs in Austin, Texas, and San Diego. Though it has no current plans to go public, the company is open to the possibility. And if it does, it will probably keep its name, Genetic Savings and Clone.
“We know a lot of our clients don’t want to hear about petri dishes and all that,” says Carlson. “We’re serious about the science, but not always about everything.
“Pet cloning is supposed to be fun.”
From the May 19-25, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.