Company banking on pet project


Tuesday, October 3rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


AUSTIN – Here is a story that might give you paws.


The people who are trying to clone a millionaire's dog at Texas A&M University say that before long they will be able to clone your dog, too.


For $895, you can bank your pet's DNA at Genetic Savings & Clone, a new commercial cloning outfit in College Station.


Be ready to fork over $100 a year to store the DNA sample until A&M scientists perfect pet-cloning technology – a goal scientists say can be reached within months, or maybe years. A genetically identical copy of King or Whiskers can then be yours for a mere $200,000 each.


"It's cradle to beyond the grave," said Lou Hawthorne, chief executive officer of Genetic Savings & Clone. "Gene banking and cloning for the big four – cats, dogs, cattle and horses."


The San Francisco-area entrepreneur said he and his partners created the gene bank in response to interest in the "Missyplicity" project, a 2-year-old, so-far-unsuccessful effort at Texas A&M to clone an aging husky mix named Missy.


Mr. Hawthorne is president of Bio Arts and Research Corp. (BARC), the San Francisco-based company that is coordinating the research on behalf of Missy's owner, an anonymous millionaire who put up $2.3 million to produce a living, breathing reminder of his spayed 13-year-old dog when she is gone.


"About six months into the project, we started getting all these calls from people who would say, 'Can you clone my dog?'" Mr. Hawthorne said recently by telephone from Genetic Savings & Clone headquarters, a one-story red-brick building across the street from a Federal Express office. "A business seemed the appropriate structure to respond to that demand ... So we changed our plans, but job No. 1 is still to clone Missy."


That job was supposed to be completed by August. Undeterred, the mysterious millionaire recently wrote a check for an additional $1.35 million, raising the project's total budget to nearly $3.7 million.


Backers also have funded cat-cloning research at A&M under the name Operation Copycat, Mr. Hawthorne said.


Missy's owner has never been publicly identified. But dog registration and other records point to Dr. John G. Sperling, 79, the multimillionaire founder of the for-profit University of Phoenix and an acquaintance of Joan Hawthorne, Mr. Hawthorne's mother.


Dr. Sperling, a Phoenix resident, also is listed as a director of Genetic Savings & Clone on corporation papers filed with the California secretary of state's office in Sacramento. He did not return calls seeking comment last week. Mr. Hawthorne would not confirm that Dr. Sperling is Missy's owner, saying, "You'll have to figure that out for yourself."


A&M scientists are confident they will be able to clone Missy. Cows, mice and sheep have been cloned, they say, so dogs can be too.


"It's just a matter of perseverance and research to get there," said Dr. Mark Westhusin, an associate professor of veterinary medicine at A&M and the Missy project's lead scientist.


Cloning Missy involves taking the genetic blueprint from her adult cells and transferring it into an unfertilized egg, which develops into an embryo and is placed in the uterus of a surrogate mother.


"The first one is always the toughest," Dr. Westhusin said. "The techniques that work in one species don't automatically transfer to another species. That's the challenge we have. We can't just take techniques that we can pretty readily clone a cow with and automatically adapt that to a dog."


But even if you could clone a pet, should you?


Experts worry that people do not really understand cloning. And they say that some motivations of pet owners who wish to clone their animals are unhealthy, such as a refusal to accept death and a misguided belief that the new animal will be the same as the old one.


Daniel B. McGee, a professor of ethics in Baylor University's Department of Religion, said he would advise pet owners not to do it, though he would not favor banning pet cloning.


"There is, in this desire, a kind of denial of death," Dr. McGee said. "A person who does this is saying, 'My pet will not die.' I think that's an unhealthy and unrealistic way to look at ourselves, at our pets, at any aspect of our lives or environment. Good things come and good things go and we should be of a mind to accept that."


Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said many pet owners have false hopes. They do not understand that cloning a dog is not the same as extending its life. A cloned pet's personality may be much different than that of the original, he said.


"Cloning is not Xeroxing," Dr. Caplan said. "I'm not sure it makes much sense to talk about cloning in terms of solving your loss or your grief. You are not going to bring back Fido or Fluffy by cloning them.


"You might bring back something that looks like them," he said. "And if you are a dog breeder, and you like the look, that might be enough, but I don't think that's what most people who are going to put their $900 down are thinking about. They're thinking, 'I'm going to get back my dog.'"


Mr. Hawthorne said company officials tell potential customers that although a cloned dog would have the same genetic endowment as the original, it would not be the same dog. The firm's Web site contains similar warnings.


"We've turned down people because it was just going to be disappointment all around and because people were deluded about what was involved," he said.


"It's not in our interest to mislead people because they are just going to be unhappy customers later."


Dr. Caplan said it may be premature to bank DNA before dog- or cat-cloning is possible. "Storing something now may be a gamble rather than a certainty," he said.


Mr. Hawthorne would not disclose how many pet owners have signed up for cloning services. He said the company would be ready to clone livestock by the end of the year, but the timetable for pets is uncertain because the technology is being developed. Time and experience are expected to lower the cost. Mr. Hawthorne said the company hopes to clone pets for less than $10,000 each within five years of achieving the first successful Missy clone.


Dr. Westhusin, a consultant to Genetic Savings & Clone, acknowledged that he could benefit financially if pet cloning takes off. But he said he's primarily in it for the science.


Whether cloning a dog is a worthwhile pursuit for pet owners is not for him to judge, Dr. Westhusin said.


"How many people go out and buy BMWs and yachts and a second house and a big motor home and ... a $40,000 diamond and a $5,000 dog?" he asked.


"I'm not one to judge people on what they should or should not spend their money on for whatever makes them happy."