Like a bad penny, disgraced South Korean cloning researcher Hwang Woo-suk is always popping up in the headlines somewhere around the world. Back in 2004, Dr. Hwang stunned the world with the announcement that he had been the first to clone human embryos. Then he shocked the world with the news that his research was fabricated and he exploited young female researchers in his lab (and many other women) to get the eggs needed for his failed attempts at human cloning. He was then convicted of fraud.
Recently, Hwang made the news in the U.S. where the United States Patent and Trademark Office awarded Hwang a patent on the cloning technique in humans. U.S. patent No. 8,647,872 was awarded for using somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning) in humans to create a human embryonic stem cell line; something Hwang never actually did.
For the past several years, Hwang has been cloning animals at Sooam Biotech in Seoul, South Korea. At this he has been successful which makes sense since his is not a medical doctor, but a veterinarian by training. He has cloned hundreds of pets for pet owners, including many in the United States. You may remember that in 2009 he cloned Trakr, the German shepherd that was one of the first responders to the World Trade Center after 9/11.
Hwang is now making headlines in the UK because he gave them their first cloned dog. The Telegraph has the story:
The Korean scientist behind Britain’s first cloned dog is a disgraced stem cell researcher who falsely claimed in 2004 to have produced the first cloned human embryo.
Dr Hwang Woo-suk is the central figure at Seoul-based Sooam Biotech, which on Wednesday claimed to have created the first ever clone of a British-owned dog, a Dachshund named Winnie belonging to owner Rebecca Smith from west London….
Miss Smith was the winner of a competition among pet owners held by Sooam Biotech aimed at launching their £60,000 dog cloning service in Britain after carrying out several hundred successful procedures abroad.
Her new puppy “mini Winnie” was born on March 30 after being cloned from skin cells belonging to her 12-year-old pet. Scientists implanted her DNA into an egg from a donor dog, and the embryo was transferred into a surrogate dog.
£60,000 to clone a dog! Is it worth it? Most experts agree that the likelihood of getting the exact beloved pet back through cloning is pretty slim. Clones are delayed twins. Anyone who knows identical twins knows that they are anything but identical. And then there is the question of the ethics of animal welfare:
Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, head of developmental genetics at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, explained that while a clone will have the same genes as it’s parent, it’s behaviour and physical characteristics will be affected by a host of biological factors in the womb and experiences in early life.
These include the mother’s hormone levels, the diet of both mother and clone, and the clone’s interactions with its mother and owner after it is born, as well as differences arising from random mutations in DNA.
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“It is extremely unlikely that a puppy cloned from a favourite pet will grow up to behave the same way,” he said. “Even the expectation of the owner that it might, because it looks similar, will probably guarantee that it will not, especially if it is chastised when it responds differently from the original.
“Given the frequency with which the cloning procedure is known to go wrong, leading to abnormally developing embryos, with consequences to the mothers carrying them, to stillborn, or live born animals with defects, and to adults with compromised anatomy, physiology, or health, and the inevitability that even a normal heathy [sic] clone will not be identical to the original animal in appearance and especially in their behaviour, I see no valid justification for cloning pets. It is a ridiculous waste of money and hope as well as being ethically very dubious.”
Dubious indeed. If cloning is this problematic for animals, then cloning humans should be unthinkable; even if the cloning is intended only to produce stem cell lines.