Disgraced Scientist Clones Dogs, And Critics Question His Intent
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There's a private laboratory in South Korea that does something no other lab does. It's the only place in the world known to clone dogs. Some of the dogs are used by police departments. Many are for grieving pet owners. During MORNING EDITION, NPR's Rob Stein introduced us to a couple in Louisiana who hired the lab to clone their beloved dog.
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ROB STEIN, BYLINE: So are - would you say - are they exactly alike?
PHILLIP DUPONT: Yeah.
STEIN: Exactly alike.
DUPONT: They're the same DNA and everything. And their personality are the same too.
SIEGEL: Well, now Rob takes us to South Korea to explore why this dog-cloning service is so controversial.
STEIN: I'm standing in a long, bright room. One wall is lined with kennels. Inside each kennel are puppies. A few that got out are running around my feed.
So there's a Boston Terrier from the USA - so cute -
A black female pug, a couple of Blonde Pomeranians - but these aren't just any puppies. These are clones - genetic duplicates of other dogs. I turn to David Kim. He's a scientist here at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, giving me a tour of the place. I ask him, how many cloned puppies are at the lab today?
DAVID KIM: Around 20...
KIM: ...In the facility right now.
STEIN: Is that typical?
KIM: Yeah, yeah, very much.
STEIN: I start thinking about Dolly the sheep, the first mammal ever cloned. Lots of people freaked out when that happened about 20 years ago that humans might be cloned next. That hasn't happened, but scientists have cloned other species. This lab figured out how to do dogs.
I came here today to see how they do it and find out why it's so controversial. Kim takes me downstairs. Our footsteps echo as we pass through wide hallways. Lots of frosty glass windows make everything kind of bright but shadowy at the same time. Suddenly, I'm in front of a huge window.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Korean).
STEIN: It takes me a minute to figure out what I'm seeing. I'm looking down on an operating room. There are two operating tables. Two big, brown dogs are laying on them on their backs, out cold, their long pink tongues hanging from their mouths, breathing tubes down their throats.
HWANG WOO-SUK: Are you ready?
STEIN: A surgeon leans over one of the dogs and starts cutting with an electric scalpel. White smoke starts billowing up.
What're they opening up on the dog?
KIM: The abdomen so we can have access to the ovaries.
STEIN: The surgeon reaches in and starts pulling out the dogs' ovaries.
KIM: We are going to flush out the eggs.
STEIN: So these are harvesting the eggs that they're going to use in the cloning process.
STEIN: To clone a dog, they start with eggs from another dog. This is one of the things that troubles some people. A lot of dogs go through those operations and a lot more to produce each clone, raising the question, is getting a genetic duplicate of your dog worth making all those other dogs suffer? I want to ask Kim about all this, but first, he's eager to show me what they do with the eggs, how they create a clone.
KIM: If you follow me, we can go into our clean room. It's our laboratory where we do the procedures, the cloning.
STEIN: I pull on a blue jumpsuit.
Zip it up - OK, got the suit on.
KIM: Follow me to the microscope room.
STEIN: The microscope room is dark. A long line of technicians peer into microscopes. A flat screen on the wall shows what's happening in a Petri dish under one. There's a big blob right in the middle.
KIM: So what you see here on the screen is the egg.
STEIN: I watch as a technician gently pierces the egg with a tiny glass needle and sucks out all the DNA.
KIM: So now - right now, what we are left with is a blank egg, in a sense.
STEIN: The technician injects another tiny blob into the blank egg. It's a skin cell from the animal that's being cloned. A single skin cell contains all the DNA that makes a creature what it is, every gene.
KIM: We insert one cell per egg, and yes, with this, the procedure's done.
STEIN: That's the wonder of cloning. You can take a single cell - any little skin cell - and create a genetic duplicate of the animal it came from. How? Well, Kim shows me. Instead of fertilizing the egg with sperm, the next technician zaps it with a tiny bit of electricity. I can't help but think, zap it - really? Could you get more "Frankenstein?"
KIM: So after you zap it, it will start developing into an early embryo. It's in the state of early embryonic development.
STEIN: Wow. That's amazing.
The next step is to transfer cloned embryos created this way into the womb of an adult dog, a surrogate mother dog. Kim takes me to see that, but first, he makes a detour into a small side room with another microscope.
What are you showing me here?
KIM: The stem cell lines that we have established.
STEIN: Stem cells - I wasn't expecting this, but I probably should've been. You see, the scientist who started this lab is Hwang Woo-suk. He became an international scientific rock star a decade ago when he claimed he created the world's first cloned human embryos. He said he did it to get the world's first human embryonic stem cells for medical research.
KIM: The little white dots are the stem cells. We're just preserving them, like, keeping the cell line alive.
STEIN: The thing is, few scientists believe those little white dots are human embryonic stem cells. That's because Hwang's claims turned out to be a fraud. He became a scientific outcast. But no one doubts Hwang is cloning dogs. The big question is why - for the money, to fund other research, to get back into the spotlight? I wanted to interview Hwang while I was here, but he refused all my requests. I ask one last time.
KIM: He's reluctant about giving interviews.
STEIN: And do you know why that is?
KIM: I'm not sure, actually.
HWANG: (Inaudible) the left side uterus.
STEIN: Back in the operating room, the surgeon leans over the second dog and starts cutting. She's there to become one of the surrogate mothers for a cloned puppy. Then the surgeon suddenly steps away from the operating table and pulls down his mask. I realize it's Hwang, the disgraced scientists who runs the place. He looks up at me for the first time and starts narrating the action. He's kind of hard to understand through the static-y speaker on the wall.
HWANG: This is our final process of embryo transfer using embryo-loaded catheter.
STEIN: So embryo-loaded - what was that?
KIM: A small syringe.
STEIN: That's how you get an embryo into a dog's womb?
STEIN: After just a few seconds, he's done.
HWANG: And hopefully we can get cloned puppies after 61 days.
STEIN: Cloned puppies after 61 days - that's how long a dog pregnancy usually lasts. Hwang claims to have produced more than 600 dogs this way, many for grieving dog owners trying to recreate their pets. But this cloning process doesn't work most of the time, so it takes lots of tried to get each clone. That means lots of dogs go through those operations.
But that's not all. Most cloned animals end up with lots of health problems and die young. I ask Kim about all this. He says every cloned dog born so far has been perfectly health, and he says the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation is just offering something that people want.
KIM: They say that dogs are a man's best friend, so there is a demand for it.
STEIN: Kim also says Sooam takes good care of the donor dogs and the surrogate dogs, though no one would tell me where they get them or what happens to them or what happens to them after the lab's done with them. Are they put down, used for other research, get a happy home? No one could tell me. As I'm leaving, I get one more surprise. Hwang, the elusive scientist, pops out of his office and invites me in.
HWANG: Nice to meet you (laughter).
STEIN: I have so many questions. Why are you cloning dogs, and what do you say to critics who worry you really just want to get back to doing experiments with human cells?
Do have any time to talk, or...
HWANG: I have to leave another place, so just - I wanted to say hello.
He does take a few minutes to pose for some pictures, but that's it.
HWANG: Have a nice day.
STEIN: After that, I'm quickly ushered out of the only lab in the world where you can order up a clone of your dog. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.