National Anti-vivisection Society

 

National Antivisection Society

Cloned Companions

(NAVS Campaigner May - August 2002)

The theoretical possibility of cloned companion animals has taken a step further with the birth of a cloned cat, and a host of new ethical and business avenues has opened up.

As a business venture the cloning of pets reached the attention of the public a couple of years ago with news that the cloning company Genetic Savings & Clone, based in Texas, would take DNA (the genetic blueprint of an organism) from old or dying dogs and cats and store it in anticipation of the time when the animals could be cloned(1). The company itself was a spin-off from a university project called the Missyplicity project, so called because of the investment of millions of dollars by a Silicon Valley billionaire desperate to clone his dog Missy(2).

The birth of the first cloned cat, Cc (which stands for carbon copy) has sustained the hopes of John Sperling, owner of Genetic Savings & Clone, that he will be able to offer similar technology to wealthy people seeking to clone their favourite pet animals. Although prices will fall, it is expected that this service will be offered initially for about 7,000, while the cloning of a dog, a procedure which has not yet been accomplished and is considered to involve much greater difficulties, may be around 70,000(3,4).

On the face of it the public might think that this heralds the prospect of much-needed comfort for the millions of pet owners who suffer terribly as a result of the loss of a companion animal. But it is far from clear that pet cloning can deliver this comfort. Firstly, the cloned animal does not look identical to the original. Carbon copy is constantly referred to as a tortoiseshell even though in pictures she is obviously tabby and white. Certainly her mother, that is, the cat from whom her DNA is derived, is tortoiseshell. One explanation for this is that the tortoiseshell colour can only be produced by a combination of one black and one ginger gene, where both genes are active. However, early in the foetal life of a female, one of these genes is switched off or inactivated, so that the colour for which the cell is programmed becomes determined by one gene only, i.e. black or ginger but not both. This accounts for the patches of either black or ginger on the coats of tortoiseshells. Obviously Cc ‘inherited’ genetic material from a period later than the foetal stage and she must have been the recipient of DNA in which the gene for ginger had been inactivated(4). Secondly the cloned companion may well behave differently from the donor of the DNA, since every individual animal is affected by its experiences and environment. So the question for those who might wish to have a much-loved pet cloned is, how much comfort would you derive from your cloned loved one if he or she both looked and behaved differently?

Furthermore, a psychologist has remarked that the cloned newcomer may well bring back memories which are painful(5) so that far from helping us to get over our bereavement in the way that adoption of, say, a shelter animal would, it might prolong the grief. Moreover one pet bereavement counsellor has remarked that when normal replacement pets don’t live up to an owner’s expectations he has seen people abuse or abandon them(6).

Yet it is easy when confronted with the pictures of the meltingly cute and cuddly Cc to forget just how many didn’t make it to the finishing line. The first wave of experiments carried out by the researchers involved 188 nuclear transfers (in which the nucleus is removed from an egg and replaced by the nucleus of another cell) and this resulted in only 82 embryos. These embryos were transferred into seven females and one became pregnant although the embryo in question had to be removed after about 44 days because it had ceased to develop. It was only in a second series of experiments that Cc came to term(7). Even if we put the loss of embryonic life to one side, there is the distress caused to the cats involved as a result of procedures for the collection of donor cells and for implantation of cloned embryos. Moreover, owing to the fact that so few embryos were carried to term we were spared what has been dubbed in the context of monkey cloning the ‘gallery of horrors...’(8), that is, the birth of animals beset by the most appalling deformities(5).

The future can hardly be said to bode well for Cc herself. Despite the fact that she will doubtless receive star treatment (at least for as long as she is a star) Cc’s life expectancy must be seriously open to question. A recent study comparing the lifespan of normal and cloned mice showed that while 10 of the 12 cloned mice were dead after 800 days only one normal mouse had died in the same time period. More than half of the dead cloned mice were found to have had severe pneumonia and 40% had been suffering from extensive liver damage. One possible reason for these abnormalities offered by the researchers is that the immune system of the cloned animals was defective. Indeed, as the researchers note, we are only now beginning to identify the physiological problems to which cloned animals are susceptible(9).

It is clear that the suffering associated with the cloning process makes the procedure morally abhorrent. It is presumably the prospect of financial gain which has blinded some researchers to the perversity of a situation in which, on the day Cc was born, 6000 unwanted cats were put down in the US alone(6).

References

1. The Guardian 17 February 2000; 17
2. New Scientist 15 April 2000; 33
3. Our Dogs 22 February 2002; 2,14
4. Our Dogs 1 March 2002: 11
5. East Anglian Daily Times 23 February 2002; 8
6. New Scientist 23 February 2002; 6
7. Shin, T et al. A cat cloned by nuclear transplantation. Nature 21 February 2002; 415: 859
8. New Scientist 15 December 2001; 14
9. Lancet 16 February 2002; 587

(NAVS Campaigner May - August 2002)

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