Interview with Ben Carlson, Vice President of
Communications of Genetical Savings and Clone Company
Ben Carlson, Vice President of Communications of Genetical Savings and Clone Company
LAST MONTH saw a unique promotion whereby a leading genetics company offered pet owners a chance to own the world’s first cloned pet cats – the first time pet cloning has been offered to the public. However, the offer – entitled ‘The First Nine Lives Extravaganza’ from US-based Genetic Savings & Clone came at a price – a cool $50,000 per cat, to be precise. (Equalling £26,760).
Only nine clones are on offer, and the lucky owners of the ‘clone lottery’ will hopefully see kitten clones of their pets in a few weeks’ time. But it’s not all confined to the realms of science fiction, as GSC have a notable success on their hands, having funded ‘Operation CopyCat’ which produced ‘CC,’ the world’s first cat clone in late 2001.
GSC‘s announcement on their official website proclaims: "CC is a healthy two-year-old cat today. Our current technology is far more advanced than that used to produce CC, and we’re confident that the clones we produce for our clients will be consistently healthy and bear striking resemblance to their genetic donors.
The company first came to prominence in 1997 when multimillionaire John Sperling funded GSC to create a clone of his beloved pet mongrel ‘Missy’, leading to the establishment of the ‘Missyplicity Project’. Sadly, Missy died a few months ago, without ever meeting her successful clone, but the company’s scientists are convinced that a canine clone will soon be a reality.
CSC’s Vice President of Communications Ben Carlson spoke exclusively to OUR DOGS on the ‘First Nine Lives’ promotion and the ongoing progress of the Missyplicity Project.
Nick Mays: The Missyplicity Project came about thanks to John Sperling and his own private funding in his desire to create a clone of Missy. Does GCS operate on a strictly private commercial basis or do you receive any Government funding into your research?
Ben Carlson: We're privately funded. We receive no government funding.
NM: Do you feel that the $50,000 price tag was beyond the means of most ordinary pet owners?
BC: Absolutely. I don’t know how many come will come forward to take up the First Nine Lives offer. Certainly only a very few will be able to afford to at that price, but that is because cloning is expensive. We are confident that the price of cloning a pet will come down over time as the technology and capability to do so improves.
NM: So do you foresee a time when cloning a favourite pet or animal could be as routine as, say, spaying or vaccination, and within the financial reach of 'Joe Public'?
BC: I don't expect pet cloning ever to be done with nearly the frequency of the spaying or vaccination of pets. Only a small percentage of pet owners are fortunate enough to have the kind of exceptional pets that our clients have gene banked with us. Many pet owners enjoy trying their luck with a new breed or a pet from a shelter. Our clients want a pet that has a specific genetic endowment.
I do think that eventually people will cease to associate cloning with science fiction, and cloning will become as familiar as, say, in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Cloning, like jewellery and vacations and sports cars, is a luxury but it's within reach for Joe Public. People who gene bank their pets have the option to wait until the price of cloning drops to a level they feel comfortable with.
NM: With all the razzamatazz of the launch of the ‘First Nine Lives’ project, do you feel that some people might see this promotion as turning science into a circus?
BC: We’ve had many claims that it’s frivolous to clone pets or that we are playing God, but we don’t see those as cloning specific arguments. The charge of frivolity over practicality can be applied to many things that are enjoyable but not actually essential, such as owning fast cars or playing sport. As for us playing God, we’re not – but we are using our scientific knowledge to find out how nature works. Hopefully, we are - in our opinion - changing things for the better. Whereas pet cloning may not seem to be an important endeavour, cloning does help towards medical and scientific applications. It will also help us to preserve the rare wild cousins of cats and dogs. We also aim to clone good working dogs when we master dog cloning, by looking for the healthiest and best performing - all attributes that have a genetic basis and are influenced by genes.
NM: The Missyplicity project has been going since 1997, and GSC always appeared to be confident that a cloned dog was ‘just around the corner’. Does your claim of having such a cloned dog by next year hold any more weight than previous claims?
BC: We’ve discovered along the way that dog cloning is much more difficult that cat cloning. There are three main reasons for this, not the least of which is that dogs go into heat irregularly compared with other animals and it is difficult to induce oestrus in a bitch to make her receptive to having cloned embryos implanted.
Also, dogs’ eggs don’t mature in the bitch’s ovaries; they mature after fertilisation in the oviducts, which lead from the ovaries to the uterus. So we have to find some way to artificially create the oviduct environment in the laboratory for when the eggs are fertilised.
And to make it even more complicated, a bitch’s eggs are opaque, so it makes it harder to see inside the egg to check whether the cells are dividing thanks to a successful fertilisation.
But our research is ongoing and we are making progress. I’m confident that we will succeed fairly soon and we’ll be able to offer this service to the public.
NM: And will dog clones be the same price as cat clones?
BC: It’s always been assumed that the price of a dog clone will be more than that of a cat clone due to the added difficulties in creating one. Even at $50,000, we can only produce a very low volume of cats. Even with people to buy them, we don’t make a profit. But one day, dog and cat clones will be readily available.
NM: When Dolly the Sheep was cloned, it took over 200 fertilized embryos to produce one 'full term' lamb. How did this compare in CC's case? And is the full-term birth rate for clones increasing?
BC: In the experiment that produced CC, five cloned embryos were transferred to a recipient female, one of which developed to term and was born (and named CC). In a prior attempt by the same team, 82 cloned embryos were transferred to seven recipient females, and one developed for several weeks but did not develop to term.
I don't know whether the full-term birth rate for clones is increasing overall, though I assume it is as the researchers gain more experience and the technology is improved. Results vary by species, and of course the number of cats cloned to date is too small to provide an answer specific to cats.
NM: Has GSC produced any other cloned animals? Are you working on any other animal cloning projects?
BC: The scientists who work for GSC have cloned numerous other animals. Our Chief Scientific Officer, Irina Polejaeva, Ph.D., is a pig cloning expert. But CC is the only animal cloned so far as a result of GSC-funded research. We're not researching cloning for any other species apart from cats and dogs.
NM: Are you involved in human cloning?
BC: Absolutely not. Our Code of Bioethics forbids any involvement in human cloning and the technology we're developing is unlikely to be useful for human cloning. Dog cloning in particular has numerous species-specific barriers, which is what most of our research is focused on. Human cloning doesn't appear to face such barriers, and thus, the technology we're developing is not needed for human cloning. Furthermore, cloning-related anomalies seen primarily in cattle strongly suggest that human cloning would not be safe for mother or child. To make the technology safe for pet clones and their surrogate mothers, we're investing millions into more advanced cloning methods coupled with advanced embryo assessment by gene array. We see it as ironic, and highly problematic, that no such investment in safeguards is occurring in the human cloning field.
NM: What is your view of the Raelian Cult's claims to have cloned a human being and also of their own pet cloning service?
BC: We have seen no evidence to support the Raelian Cult's claims to have cloned anything.
NM: Obviously the science of cloning generates a great deal of philosophical and moral debate. Are you ‘playing at God’ or do you feel that Humankind has the right to ‘tamper" with nature by cloning?
BC: On the contrary, I believe that exploration, discovery, and creativity ARE human nature.
Humankind has been shaping nature for thousands of years, since the beginning of agriculture and animal husbandry. We see cloning as a new form of assisted reproduction, not that different from artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization, perceived by some as ‘ungodly’ when introduced just decades ago. Ultimately, we consider a strong, tangible, more meaningful and useful than abstract concerns about ‘playing God.’
NM: What impact will cloning have on genetic diversity?
BC: Our typical client wishes to obtain a single clone of a mixed breed pet that is spayed, neutered, or beyond breeding age. The clone, therefore, will actually preserve the diversity of the gene pool by preventing the loss of the individual genome. However, the pet population is already so large and varied that concerns over diversity are irrelevant. For endangered species, the big surprise is that cloning may actually increase genetic diversity. There are various reasons why some individuals within an endangered population do not breed, including age, environmental factors, or simply being at the wrong level for breeding status in that species' social hierarchy. By cloning non-breeding or deceased members of an endangered population, we can potentially increase the genetic diversity of that species. Our policy is that cloning should be the method of last resort for species preservation, because it is far less efficient than habitat preservation, poaching control, and captive breeding. However, for a severely bottlenecked population, cloning may be the only alternative to extinction.
NM: Does GSC have to adhere to any legislative or ethical code of conduct?
BC: We have a strict Code of Bioethics, which includes the directive that baseline animal care at GSC shall at all times meet or exceed guidelines set forth by the Association For Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC).
NM: Ben Carlson, thank you very much.
BC: Thank you.