Disgraced Scientist Clones Dogs, And Critics Question His Intent

Sep 30, 2015
Originally published on February 28, 2018 7:26 am

The Sooam Biotech Research Foundation's sleek marble building is on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea. After passing through a guarded gate, visitors climb the steps to the entrance and a big door with tinted glass slides open.

"Hello, sir. Nice to meet you, sir," says David Kim, a researcher at the laboratory. "You can follow me. We can go into the clean room. It's the laboratory where we do the procedures — the cloning."

Sooam Biotech is the only lab in the world that makes genetically identical copies — clones — of dogs for pet owners. Nearly 20 years ago, when Dolly the sheep became the first mammal ever cloned from a mature cell taken from an adult animal, many people feared the advance would lead to human cloning.

That hasn't happened. But scientists have cloned several other species since, including cattle, rabbits, mules and cats. The success rates and health of the cloned animals has varied from species to species; Sooam's scientists seem to be the only ones to figure out how to clone dogs.

For $100,000, anyone who has a cell from any dog can attempt to get a clone. The lab says it has cloned more than 600 dogs so far. Many of these clones are created for grieving pet owners, but some are being used by police agencies, including the South Korean National Police Agency.

Sooam's dog-cloning service is controversial. It was started by Hwang Woo Suk, who became a scientific pariah in 2006, when his claim that he had created the first cloned human embryos in 2004 to produce human embryonic stem cells was discovered to be fraudulent.

But no one doubts that Hwang is cloning dogs. The big question is: Why? For the money? To fund other research? To reclaim the spotlight? Hwang refused several requests by NPR for an interview, but he agreed to let me tour the facility with Kim, to see how the process is done.

After we change into rubber slippers and blue jumpsuits, Kim leads me into a darkened room that's crowded with technicians peering into microscopes. Kim points to a flat screen on the wall that shows a live feed of what's happening in a petri dish under one microscope. There's a big blob near the center of the dish.

"What you see here on the screen is the egg," Kim says, explaining that to clone one dog, scientists start with an egg from another dog. "The small, blue shining dot that you see is the genetic material, which we will take out now."

A technician gently pierces the egg's outer membrane with a tiny glass tube and withdraws the genetic material.

"We can see how the DNA is being extracted," Kim says. "So now, what we are left with is a blank egg, in a sense."

Next, 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 needed to create a genetically identical clone.

"We will insert one cell per egg," Kim says. "With this, the procedure is done."

Well, almost. After that another technician zaps the egg with a tiny bit of electricity.

"After you zap it, it will start developing — dividing and developing — into an early embryo," Kim says. "It's at the stage of early embryonic development."

Within days, if all goes well, the embryos will be ready for transfer into the uterus of another female dog — a surrogate mother.

Kim heads to another part of the lab, stopping on a platform in front of a huge window that overlooks an operating room. Two big brown dogs lie unconscious on tables, each mostly covered by a green tarp. The dogs have tubes down their throats, and their long, pink tongues dangle to the side.

A half-dozen people in blue scrubs and surgical masks scurry around; bits of conversation are audible through a monitor on the wall.

"Are you ready?" one of the surgeons asks the team. He leans over a small opening in the tarp and makes an incision that will give him access to the dog's ovaries.

"We are going to flush out the eggs," Kim explains.

After a few minutes, when the surgeon steps away from the operating table and pulls down his mask, I can see that it's Hwang Woo Suk — the scientist who runs the lab.

"We got 15 eggs from both sides of the ovaries," Hwang says.

They'll take those eggs back to the microscope room, in hopes of turning them into cloned dog embryos.

Hwang moves over to the second dog and starts cutting. She's there to become the surrogate mother for a cloned puppy.

"This is our final process of embryo transfer — using an embryo-loaded catheter," Hwang explains.

After just a few seconds he's injected several previously created embryos into the dog's uterus and steps away from the table.

"Hopefully we can get cloned puppies after 61 days," he says. That's how long a dog pregnancy usually lasts.

The next stop on the tour is a long, bright kennel room. Puppies paw at the glass doors of each stall — a Boston terrier bound for the United States, a black female pug, a couple of male Pomeranians and a pair of Yorkshire terriers headed for Ireland.

Some newborn cloned puppies are still with their surrogate mothers in another kennel downstairs, in the process of being weaned. Others are outside getting some exercise. All the animals look healthy and happy. But critics have some big concerns about this procedure.

For one thing, this cloning process works only about a third of the time. So, getting a cloned puppy entails a lot of attempts and a lot of miscarriages. And the process requires many dogs — some to provide the eggs, and others to serve as surrogates.

"I think you really need to think twice about it in terms of animal welfare," says Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University. "Dog owners should really be aware of the potential harm to dogs that could be produced during this process."

What's more, most cloned animals end up pretty sickly — which raises further questions about the cloning process.

"The cloning process is imperfect. It doesn't completely reset the DNA to an embryonic state," Huyn says. "So depending on how imperfect that process is, you have different ailments that will befall the dog — many of them might die at an early age."

And even when the process works perfectly, the cloned animals aren't exact replicas of the originals. Environmental influences, including some that help determine when particular genes are turned on and off during development, play a role in how closely the resulting clone mimics the original dog.

"They may not even look like your beloved pet," Hyun says.

Hyun also worries that Hwang is using his dog-cloning services as a way to try to rehabilitate his career and eventually be allowed to return to doing research involving human cells.

"I'm a little bit wary of the idea that he's still trying to do research and publish in scientific journals," Hyun says. "And some have even suggested that over time, he may make a comeback in the human research arena. I just don't think someone like him can be trusted to follow the rules appropriately."

Although reputable scientists say Hwang committed fraud, he has always maintained that he did clone stem cells; during the tour Kim shows off what he claims is the original line of these cells.

Kim also says all cloned dogs born so far have been perfectly healthy — and almost always look and act a lot like the dogs they were cloned from. Kim also says Sooam Biotech takes good care of the donor and surrogate dogs, though he wouldn't say where the lab gets these animals or what happens to them after they are no longer needed.

Kim tells me the lab is using the cloning techniques its staff developed to clone dogs for other research — including creating animal models of Alzheimer's disease and diabetes, in hopes of finding treatments for the human illnesses.

Scientists at Sooam are also trying to save endangered species, Kim says, and even hope to one day re-create extinct ones — like the woolly mammoth.

In response to those who question the dog research, Kim says Sooam is just offering something that people want.

"Among the domestic animals that share a deep relationship with humans, you know, they say that dogs are a man's best friend," he says. "So there is a demand for it."

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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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

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...

STEIN: Wow.

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.

KIM: Yes.

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: Catheter.

STEIN: Catheter.

KIM: A small syringe.

STEIN: That's how you get an embryo into a dog's womb?

KIM: Yes.

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.

STEIN: OK.

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.