Biotech Cos. Fight to Meet Demand
Fri Feb 15, 6:27 PM ET
By PAUL ELIAS, AP Biotechnology Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Tundra died three years ago, but Susann Rivera never gave up hope that one day she would play with her furry friend again.

Her heart soared Friday after she learned that Texas A&M University researchers had successfully cloned a little calico kitten named cc, short for copycat.

"Tundra's coming back," said Rivera, the first cat customer of Genetic Savings & Clone, which charges people to store their pets' DNA.

The Burlingame woman who has kept Tundra's toys and Elvis Presley costume in anticipation of his resurrection is on a long list of pet owners hoping cloning can bring back their beloved companions.

Several biotechnology companies see a lucrative market in the frisky ball of fur that researchers unveiled Thursday. They say they've been inundated with calls since the feline hit the news.

Hundreds of people have already paid as much as $1,000 each to freeze their pets' DNA with hopes that cloning will someday become affordable and safe. The cloned kitty has buoyed those hopes while opening a giant can of worms.

"I'm very worried that people are putting a piece of Fluffy in the fridge with the hope that cloning will restore it," said Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist. "Cloning is an echo. It is not a copy. These companies border on deceiving people."

Even cc looks nothing like her surrogate, a calico cat named Rainbow. The genes are the same but cc's markings differ substantially from Rainbow's. That's no surprise since other cloned animals have displayed similar differences.

The kitten born in December looks different because the pigmentation pattern of the animal's coat isn't controlled strictly by the lineup of genes.

"This is a reproduction," said Texas A&M researcher Duane Kraemer "not a resurrection."

That's a huge hurdle for the successful commercialization of cloned pets given that people like Rivera want their Tundra back.

"The idea of cloning is a sham," said Wayne Spacelle, a senior vice president with the U.S. Humane Society. "Their behavior and personality will be different. You may have a better match personality wise by going to a shelter and seeing an animal that exists, than by rolling the dice with cloning."

Genetic Savings chief executive Lou Hawthorne agrees.

"Tundra ain't coming back," said Hawthorne, whose company funded the Texas A&M research and is putting the finishing touches on a new 7,000 square-foot cloning laboratory in College Station, Texas.

And though Hawthorne says it is spending millions on research to produce as close to exact duplicates of cats, dogs, horses and cattle as possible, he concedes that today's cloning technology is "crude".

"We can't give you a guarantee that the personality will be the same," he said.

The kitty clone was the research team's only success after transferring 87 cloned embryos into eight female cats.

Overall, the success rate was comparable to that seen in other cloned species, the researchers said.

Still, at least three other companies are racing to develop successful commercial pet cloning operations, including Cyagra of Worcester, Mass. Cyagra is a subsidiary of Advanced Cell Technology, the biotechnology firm that announced in November it had cloned a human embryo.

Lazaron Biotechnologies of Baton Rouge, La., and Canine Cryobank of San Marcos are two other companies interested in pet cloning.

Cyagra vice president Ron Gillepsie estimates that up to 10 million pet owners would be interested in cloning their animals for about $3,000 each. Hawthorne said his marketing studies show the same number of interested people, though he declined to talk about pricing.

These companies have been collecting and storing pets' DNA in deep freezes for prices ranging between $800 and $1,200 each. They all see a big market in people like Rob Fine of New York City.

Fine's beloved 11-year-old Rottweiler, Cali, died in January.

"She was absolutely the most incredible animal I've ever known," he said of the dog he raised from a pup. "She had so much personality. She was beautiful and smart. I was broken up when she died."

To help cope with his loss, Fine hedged his bet and paid two biotechnology companies about $800 each to store some of Cali's cells and keep hope alive that someday, maybe, science could deliver him a clone or something close to an exact duplicate.