South Korea's new high tech product: cloned dogs
SEOUL (Reuters) - Two South Korean labs are offering pet owners the chance to clone dogs, but for those looking to bring back a beloved beagle, be ready to wait in line and have plenty of cash on hand.
The Seoul-based labs -- one affiliated to RNL Bio Co and the other to Sooam Biotech Research Foundation -- are separated by about 30 km (20 miles) and bill themselves as the only places in the world where you can clone a cocker spaniel or retrieve a retriever, with costs running at about $50,000 to $100,000.
But the labs are turning out far more copies of working dogs and endangered breeds than pets.
Customers such as 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 the cost at 60 million won ($60,260) per clone. It costs about twice that to breed and train a normal sniffer dog, 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.
Near South Korea's main international airport, trainers have been putting seven Labrador retrievers cloned from a top drug sniffing dog named Chase through their paces.
The seven clones, all named Toppy for "tomorrow's puppy", were produced in October and November last year by RNL Bio and seem to have the right stuff for the job, their trainer said.
TOP DOG IN CLONING BATTLE
Both labs are staffed with researchers who worked with Hwang Woo-suk, once hailed as a national hero in South Korea for his work in human embryonic stem cells but who later fell from his perch when his research results were found to be 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, a biotech firm using dog cloning as a way to grow its international business, will 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.
Ra said it costs as much to produce a single copy of a dog as it does to produce many clones.
Dogs are cloned using so-called somatic cell nuclear transfer, a technique for hollowing out the nucleus of a donor egg and injecting it with the donor's genetic material, which is typically skin tissue taken from the ear.
The canines are considered one of the more difficult mammals to clone because of their reproductive cycle that includes difficult-to-predict ovulations.
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.
RNL chief Ra said he expects to be able to clone about 100 dogs next year and for the price to drop as technology improves.
But Ra, the owner of a Maltese, has no plans to clone his own family pet. "It's too expensive," he said.
(Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun)
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)
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