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Lab looks at cloning drug-sniffing dogs

SEOUL (Reuters) - A South Korean laboratory that produced the world’s first cloned dogs is looking to get into the business of cloning canines, first by cloning drug-sniffing dogs, a lab official said on Tuesday.

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The laboratory at Seoul National University, implicated in a scandal for fabricating data in embryonic stem cell studies, has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Korea Customs Service to clone drug-sniffing dogs, said Kim Min-kyu, the researcher who heads the cloning project for the team.

“However, this is taking place more on an investigative level, so we aren’t going to be making a profit from this deal,” Kim said, adding: “We have plans to clone dogs commercially in the future.”

A customs service official confirmed it had reached a deal with the lab but would not offer details of the arrangement.

Although the lab, which is financed by the government, is focusing on cloning animals that provide services to humans, such as seeing-eye dogs or dogs who help law enforcement authorities, Kim said there is a possibility the team could look at cloning pets.

“It isn’t worth being done commercially yet,” he said. “There isn’t enough demand for cloning pets yet, although we expect the numbers to increase.”

He estimated it would cost about 50 million won (27,000 pounds) to 100 million won to clone a pet dog. Dogs are considered one of the most difficult mammals to clone because of their unpredictable reproductive cycle as well as difficulties in inducing ovulation and fertilizing eggs in the lab.

The team, once led by disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk, had been hailed as national heroes for bringing the country to the global forefront of cloning and stem cell studies.

It later was seen as an embarrassment after two landmark papers published by the team on cloned human embryonic stem cells were withdrawn by the publisher after an investigation panel found key data had been intentionally fabricated.

The team, however, did produce the world’s first cloned dog in 2005, the Afghan hound “Snuppy”, which has been verified by independent testing. It has gone on to produce other cloned dogs and has cloned Korean grey wolves, an endangered species.

Former team leader Hwang is standing trial on charges of fraud, embezzlement and violating the country’s bioethics laws.

With additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz