July 17, 2008

Two South Korean Firms Offer Pet Cloning Services

Two South Korean labs are offering pet owners the chance to clone their dogs in hopes of bringing a beloved pet back to life, but the service will come at a high price.

Both Seoul-based labs "“ one affiliated to RNL Bio Co and the other to Sooam Biotech Research Foundation -- sit within just 20 miles of each other, and both claim to be the only places in the world where pet owners can clone their pets at prices ranging between $50,000 and $100,000.

However, pet owners haven't been the labs' best customers. Many of their clients use are using the service to make copies of working dogs and endangered breeds rather than household pets.

For example, South Korea's customs service have cloned a champion sniffer dog, seeing the option as a cost-effective way to produce candidates for expensive training programs.

The customs service estimates that it costs about twice as much to breed and train a normal sniffer dog than to clone one, but only about 30 percent are good enough to make the grade, it said.

"This all came about from the question of how we could secure dogs with superior qualities at a low price," commissioner of the Korea Customs Service Hur Yong-suk said.

Trainers have been putting seven cloned Labrador retrievers to the test at South Korea's main international airport. The dogs were cloned from a top drug detecting dog named Chase. Each of the seven clones have been named Toppy for "tomorrow's puppy." They were cloned by RNL Bio and seem to be qualified for the job, their trainer said.

Leading the animal cloning movement is well-known scientist Hwang Woo-suk, who was once well-respected in South Korea for his work in human embryonic stem cells until it was discovered that his research results were fraudulent.

Hwang, who left Seoul National University in disgrace, went on to form Sooam in 2006, while the RNL Bio lab is largely staffed by researchers who stayed behind after Hwang left the prestigious university.

RNL says Hwang's team members, and not Hwang himself, developed the technology that resulted in the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy born in 2005 while Sooam says the technology belongs to Hwang.

"They can be our competitor or we can cooperate because our capacity is very small now. If we can make a partnership, we can make more dog clones for worldwide needs," said Ra Jeongchan, president and CEO of RNL Bio.

RNL plans to soon produce its first cloned pet, copying a pit bull named Booger for a California grandmother who lost a few of her fingers and relied on the dog for help.

Sooam, which has brought Hwang back into the spotlight, made a splash when it said it produced the first clones of a pet dog, a mixed-breed called "Missy" that was the pet of the CEO of U.S. biotech firm BioArts International. Three clones were born in late 2007 and early 2008, it said.

U.S. biotech firm BioArts, which works with Sooam, is auctioning off five slots to people who want to clone their pets, with bids starting at $100,000.