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Tag: cells

Dog clones: Now made in America


Just as the earliest efforts to clone a dog in America didn’t make a huge splash, news-wise, neither did the recent birth — nearly 20 years later — of the first made-in-America canine clone.

ViaGen, a genetic preservation company in Texas, announced at the end of July that the first successful cloning of a dog in America had led to a birth, and that the Jack Russell terrier pup had been delivered to clients.

Chances are you haven’t read about it — because hardly anyone has written about it.

Including me — the guy who wrote that dog cloning book.

I received an email Monday containing the press release announcing the successful cloning. It came from Andrew Lavin, a public relations consultant in New York who handles publicity for ViaGen. It was dated Sept. 12 and included the photos of the clone, named Nubia, that you see here.

When I checked online to see what news coverage the announcement had received, I found almost none — only an “article” in Pet Age magazine (actually a verbatim reprint of the company press release) in July.

When I called ViaGen’s Austin offices to clear up some of my confusion I was told the press release had originally been issued at the end of July, and they didn’t know why the one I received had been re-dated to Sept. 12.

When I asked why the announcement had not received greater news coverage, the person on the phone said only, “It was a soft press release.” She didn’t explain what that meant.

(I can only guess it means a press release sent to a limited few, vague and fuzzy on the details, and accompanied by a “we’re not going to answer any questions” attitude — one that is low-profile enough to not arouse any detractors, such as the many animal welfare organizations that frown on cloning pets, saying it is cruel to animals and exploits bereaved pet owners.)

When I asked ViaGen for more information about the cloning, I was told, “all media requests go through Andy,” meaning Andrew Lavin.

He eventually returned my call and answered my email, explaining that he had “updated” the original press release — and therefore changed the date on it.

He did seek answers to my questions and sent me ViaGen CEO Blake Russell’s responses to them. Russell sidestepped far more than he answered.

nubia1The owners of the clone are not being identified — apparently not even the state or country where they reside.

Their original dog is deceased, but they were able to have her cloned with tissue samples taken by her vet when she was spayed.

Asked where the other dogs that are needed to produce a successful clone came from — dogs in heat from whom egg cells are harvested, and female dogs who serve as surrogates — Russell said ViaGen Pets purchases oocytes from an unnamed provider and that “ViaGen Pets uses a production partner to supply the needed surrogates.”

Presumably, the merging of egg and donor cells and the surgeries necessary were performed at ViaGen labs in Texas.

Texas, by the way, is where the whole crazy idea got started — though it wasn’t pulled off until scientists in South Korea cloned the world’s first dog.

Here’s the condensed version:

Shortly after the birth of the world’s first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, in 1996, the wealthy founder of the University of Phoenix, John Sperling, decided that cloning his girlfriend’s dog, Missy, would make for a lovely gift.

He teamed up with his girlfriend’s son, Lou Hawthorne, to find a learning institution that would be interested in cloning the world’s first dog.

They chose Texas A&M University and funneled millions into the project.

For years, from 1998 to 2002, researchers there tried to clone a dog. They were able to clone the world’s first pig, cat, bull and goat, but dogs, they found, were extra difficult.

Hawthorne had high hopes of turning the cloning of pet dogs into a big business, and it was during this time that he launched Genetic Savings & Clone, a company that, like Viagen, stored the cells of pets whose owners thought they might someday want a clone.



The research project at Texas A&M, eventually, was dropped, but the quest was picked up by Seoul National University in South Korea, which produced the first dog clone, Snuppy, in 2005.

The thousands produced since then — most often for bereaved pet owners seeking a duplicate of the dog they lost — have all been made in South Korean laboratories.

At one point, two Korean companies were producing dog clones for customers, and one American company was selling dog cloning, too.

Bio Arts, a company Hawthorne started in hopes of cloning dogs on its own, ended up teaming up with one of the Korean companies, Sooam, led by former Seoul National University scientist Hwang Woo Suk, to provide clones to American customers.

Among the first of those shipped back to the U.S. was a clone of Missy, which he presented to his mother, Sperling’s girlfriend.

She noted the puppy was ill-behaved, and said she didn’t want it.


Surgery at Sooam

Hawthorne later pulled out of the partnership with Sooam, citing, among other reasons, his concerns that accepted animal welfare protocols — or at least those accepted by most Western countries — weren’t being followed by the South Koreans.

“A cloned dog contributes to the happiness of a family but I do not think it is possible to do it without a huge amount of suffering to hundreds of others,” Hawthorne told The Mirror, which was reporting on the first dog cloning for a customer in the UK.

In an interview with the Mirror, Hawthorne referred to the vast numbers of dogs that it took — up to 80, he said — to clone just one. And he confirmed that, as my book reported, Korean cloning researchers borrowed dogs from dog farms — farms where dogs are raised for their meat — for the process.

Today, only one of the Korean companies is still in operation.

https://www.amazon.com/Dog-Inc-Uncanny-Inside-Cloning/dp/1583333916Another Korean company that paved the way for cloning pet dogs — and provided the first clones to an American customer — pulled out of cloning pet dogs in 2011, not long after the publication of my book, “DOG, INC: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend.”

ViaGen’s successful cloning of a dog lessens the likelihood of dog cloning fading away; instead it brings the process to American shores, and offers it at a much reduced price — $50,000 instead of the initial $150,000 the Korean companies charged.

ViaGen Pets says it is now the only American company offering pet cloning services — and says they are doing so “in full compliance with all U.S. regulatory standards and humane pet care practices.”

The are no federal laws against cloning dogs, or for that matter, humans, in the United States.

ViaGen,a long-time cloner of livestock, produced its first cloned cats for customers last year and it has been banking the cells of pets for more than a decade.

The company says the birth of Nubia will likely increase demand for cloning and genetic preservation of companion pet DNA.


President Blake Russell said the company has already genetically preserved almost 1,000 pets and that there is a waiting list for the cloning procedure.

“The potential to have an identical twin to something that was very important and special in your life is an unprecedented opportunity and has brought a lot of joy to pet owners,” Russell says in the press release.

In addition to the cost of cloning, ViaGen charges a $1,600 fee and $150 a year to store tissue samples from pets whose owners may someday want to clone them.

The cloning procedure involves injecting cells harvested from the original dog into egg cells harvested from female dogs, a jolt of electricity to help them merge, and implanting the resulting embryo into a surrogate mother dog who carries the pup to birth.

ViaGen says a cloned puppy or kitten is “simply a genetic twin born at a later date, and should share many of the original’s attributes, including intelligence, temperament and appearance.”

The South Korean company guarantees only that the appearance will be identical, or nearly identical — but they often achieve that by producing multiple clones.

Many of dog cloning’s customers have come from the U.S. and the U.K. — and up to now they have been turning to Sooam Biotech to clone their dogs.

Most animal welfare organizations oppose the practice, pointing to the number of other dogs it takes to produce a clone, the intrusive procedures, the creation of surplus clones, and the sometimes nightmarish results. They also say pet cloning companies are exploiting the grief of bereaved pet owners.

There has been little outcry from them about the fact that dog cloning is now being done in America. Then again, it’s a development of which many people — possibly having missed that “soft” press release — aren’t aware.

In any case, it appears an American-born idea has finally — for better or worse — come to fruition in America.

(Photos of Nubia courtesy of ViaGen Pets; photos of Snuppy and a cloning underway at Sooam by John Woestendiek)

A drug to make your dog live longer?


Two University of Washington scientists think it might be possible to slow the aging process in canines and are launching a pilot study with 30 dogs to see if the drug rapamycin significantly extends their lifespans.

The researchers, using $200,000 in seed money from the University of Washington, plan to use pets, not laboratory animals, for the initial study, and recruit volunteer dogs — or at least dogs whose owners volunteer them — for larger scale studies in the future.

Daniel Promislow, an evolutionary geneticist, and Matthew Kaeberlein, a molecular biologist, say the study is aimed at determining whether rapamycin could lead to longer lives for dogs — as studies have shown is the case when it’s used on yeast, fruit flies, worms and mice.

“We’re not talking about doubling the healthy life spans of pets,” said Kaeberlein. “But at a minimum I would predict that you would get a 10 to 15 percent increase in average life span, and I think bigger effects are possible.”

In the pilot study, 30 large, middle-aged dogs will be involved — half receiving low doses of rapamycin, half receiving placebos.

The researchers say that subsequent studies will seek to enroll pet dogs from across the country.

Kaeberlein and Promislow hosted a meeting in Seattle last week where experts from across the country discussed the drug rapamycin and its possible effects on the health and longevity of dogs, the Seattle Times reported.

Currently used along with other medications to prevent rejection in organ-transplant patients, rapamycin has been called a promising anti-aging drug — though there have been no studies involving humans.

But almost 50 laboratory studies have shown that the compound can delay the onset of some diseases and degenerative processes and restore vigor to elderly animals, extending life spans by 9 to 40 percent.

Rapamycin functions, in part, by inactivating a protein that promotes cell growth. As a result, cells grow more slowly, which retards the spread of cancer.

Promislow, who has two elderly dogs of his own, noted that even if the drug doesn’t increase the life span of dogs, it could serve to keep them healthy longer. “We’re trying to understand why some dogs age better than others, and help all dogs age in a better way,” he said.

The drug has been shown to have serious side effects, including poor wound healing and an increased risk of diabetes, when used at the high doses required for organ transplant patients.

But the low doses used in anti-aging research with mice and other lab animals cause few side effects.

There have been no large-scale human trials. Studying how the drug affects dogs — who suffer many of the same old-age ailments as their masters — makes it possible to explore the possible benefits of rapamycin both more quickly and at a lesser cost.

If it does turn out to be a sort of  fountain of youth — for dogs, humans, or both — the potential profits would be enormous.

“I think it’s worth a go, not just from what it can teach us about humans, but for the sake of the animals themselves,” said University of Alabama Biology Department Chairman Steven Austad, an expert in aging research who is not involved in the project. “It may not work in dogs, but if it did, boy, it’s going to be huge.”

According to the Seattle Times article, drug companies aren’t very interested in rapamycin because it’s no longer under patent.

But the researchers are hoping dog lovers, dog-food companies and some foundations might be willing to contribute to further research.

They’ve set up a website, dogagingproject.com,where people can donate and sign their dogs up to take part in the research.

“Given how I feel about my pets, I see this as a unique project where there’s a real potential for citizen science,” Kaeberlein said. “I think it would be great if pet owners who are really interested in improving the health of their animals would help fund this work.”

(Photos: UW scientists Matt Kaeberlein, with his dog Dobby, and Dan Promislow, with his dog Frisbee; by Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

UK’s first canine clone is born in Seoul


With more than 500 canine clones now roaming the world, you wouldn’t think the fact that one has been produced for a pet owner in the UK would make such a big splash.

But it has, and a big splash is just what the cloners had in mind.

To introduce its unique service to Britain, Sooam Biotech, the South Korean laboratory that’s now the only company cloning dogs, borrowed from an earlier chapter in dog cloning’s bizarre history. It held a public contest, awarding a free cloning as the grand prize.

The winner: Rebecca Smith, 29, of London, who learned in late March that a clone of her 12-year-old dachshund Winnie had been born in a Seoul laboratory, BBC reported.

She named the dog Mini Winnie.

The competition saw dog owners submit videos of their dogs and compete for the chance to “immortalize” their pet for free. The bill for dog cloning normally runs around $100,000.

“Sooam Biotech is looking for one person with the most special and inspiring reason for cloning his/her beloved dog,” the company said in announcing the contest.

The contest was similar to one held in the U.S. when dog cloning first hit the market. It was called the “Golden Clone Giveaway,” and the winner was TrakR, a search and rescue dog whose owner said the German shepherd found the last survivor in the rubble of 9/11.

The weird and wacky story of how dog cloning was achieved, how it was marketed, and the first customers to sign up for it can be found in my book, “DOG, INC.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend.”

The UK’s first canine clone — who won’t arrive in the country until after a 6-month quarantine period — was cloned at Sooam Biotech, a laboratory run by Hwang Woo Suk, who was a member of the Seoul National University team that produced the world’s first canine clone, Snuppy, in 2005.

That research began after an earlier effort to clone a dog in the U.S., at Texas A&M University, was unsuccessful.

The Texas A&M research was funded by John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix. After cloning a cat, and assorted farm animals, the Texas A&M efforts to clone a dog were called off, but Sperling’s front man, who had established a company to store the cells of dead and dying dogs (Genetic Savings & Clone), even before dog cloning was achieved, later teamed up Hwang and Sooam to offer an online auction, with the highest bidders receiving clones of their dogs.

SONY DSCHwang founded his lab after getting fired from Seoul National University when his claim to have produced the world’s first cloned human embryos was deemed fraudulent. He was later convicted of embezzling research funds and illegally buying human eggs, but his 18-month sentence was suspended.

Hwang has more recently has embarked on trying to clone a woolly mammoth from 10,00-year-old remains found frozen in Siberia.

Meanwhile, he’s churning out laboratory-created dogs, more than 500 of which have been born to surrogate mother dogs at his lab and kennel.

To create Mini Winnie, a piece of skin was taken from Winnie and transported to Seoul. Cells from the sample were placed inside an anonymous donor dog’s egg cell and, with a jolt of electricity, they merged.

Then the embryo was implanted inside a surrogate dog that gave birth, via Caesarean, to Winnie on March 30.

“The world would be a better place with more Winnies in it,” Smith, 29, says in a Channel 4 documentary, “The £60,000 Puppy: Cloning Man’s Best Friend.”

smithandwinnieSmith received the original Winnie as a present on her 18th birthday, and she says the dog helped her overcome “lots of demons,” including an eating disorder. Smith says Mini Winnie looks identical to the original, who is old and arthritic, but still alive.

Hundreds of pet owners have had dogs cloned since the first customer, a California woman who received five copies of her dead pit bull, Booger.

Critics of the process say cloning doesn’t result in the resurrection of an animal, but a laboratory-made twin, whose creation requires the involvement of numerous other dogs, and who might not act like the original at all.

Initially, two South Korean companies were cloning dogs for pet owners (and even more for research purposes), but one of the, RNL Bio, has pulled out of the dog-cloning business.

While the cloning process has grown more efficient, some animal welfare groups say risks are still high.

Dr Katy Taylor, Head of Science at The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said: “Cloning is a very unpredictable and extremely wasteful process … In order to produce just one ‘perfect’ clone, many puppies with the same genes as a loved animal will be born … Some of these puppies will be aborted or will die soon after birth from unpredictable health complications and severe birth defects.”

Defective pups, and the South Korean laboratory’s failure to follow animal welfare protocols, were among the reasons cited by the American company that teamed up with Hwang for pulling out of its dog cloning arrangement.

The documentary, while it mostly follows the judges as they visit with contestants and their dogs, does go some interesting places, including Edinburg, for an interview with Sir Ian Wilmut, cloner of Dolly the sheep. Wilmut doesn’t endorse pet cloning, and says he remains skeptical of it, saying it will lead to lots of disappointed customers who, despite their hopes, won’t get an animal with the same personality as the original.

There’s also an interview with a pet owner, not a contestant, who views dog cloning as a Hitleresque pursuit, and there are several allusions to the fact that some Koreans eat dog meat.

“The £60,000 Puppy: Cloning Man’s Best Friend” was made by the same independent production company that produced “I Cloned My Pet,” several episodes of which appeared on TLC.

“The £60,000 Puppy” is an improvement over those productions, which brushed aside most ethical questions and animal welfare concerns about pet cloning. While the new documentary doesn’t delve too deeply into them either, it does present something more than a one-sided view.

Like the earlier documentaries, it reinforces that most customers of dog cloning are, shall we say, eccentric sorts, and that their attachment to their dogs — as with all of us — is a powerful one.

Perhaps the most telling moment, though, comes as the judges debate — American Idol style — the public relations benefits of each contestant.

After that, the winner is … after a long, long pause … announced.

Cloning, it seems, is no longer some futuristic pipedream. It has become a reality, and apparently an entertainment form.

My view? Cloning is no game show, or at least it shouldn’t be.

(Photos: Top, Mini Winnie / Channel 4; middle, Hwang in his lab / John Woestendiek; bottom; Smith and the original Winnie / Channel 4)

Will stem cells bring Bentley’s legs back?

Bentley, a 2-year-old Great Pyrenees with a torn ligament and an arthritic joint in his back leg, was reinjected with his own stem cells this week — a process veterinarians hope will have him running, or at least walking comfortably again, in a matter of weeks.

The procedure — performed on the 105-pound dog at the American Animal Hospital in Randolph, New Jersey — was described as the first one-day, animal stem cell transplant procedure in New Jersey history.

Vets hope the treatment will stimulate cell regeneration in Bentley, reduce inflammation and ease his pain.

“I just want to give Bentley some relief, just so I can walk him again. I’m not expecting him to be a marathon runner,” owner Erin McGuire, who drove her dog 80 miles from Brielle for the treatment, told the Newark Star-Ledger.

The procedure was overseen by Michael Hutchinson, a veterinarian from the Pittsburgh area who has performed similar ones on about 100 dogs, cats and even horses since 2008.

Although the procedure is approved only for animal ailments such as hip dysplasia, arthritis and ligament injuries, it is being looked at — and used in some other countries — to solve human health problems as well.

“The basic procedure involves taking fat from the dog, extracting stem cells and injecting those stem cells back into the dog,” said Brian T. Voynick, owner and director of the Randolph veterinary hospital.

Voynick was the first veterinarian in New Jersey to use stem cell treatment with animals three years ago — a prolonged, multi-day procedure at the time.

After he removed 60 grams of fat from the dog, he’d have to send it to California to be processed, and wait for the stem cells to be shipped back. Bentley’s treatment, in which the stem cells were separated from the fat on site, took less than four hours at Voynick’s hospital Wednesday.

Voynick and Hutchinson removed 16 grams of fat from under the dog’s left shoulder, mixed it with platelets extracted from the dog’s blood and enzymes, incubated the serum, spun it in a centrifuge and finally exposed it to wavelengths of LED lighting under a process patented by an Australian-based company called MediVet.

Bentley was given a good prognosis Wednesday, but only time will tell if the procedure was successful, the Star-Ledger reported.

The inner workings of a cold slimy nose

Many a dog owner has wondered what’s going on in their pooch’s head — but even more fascinating may be what’s going on in his nose.

A team of Pennsylvania State University researchers, led by Brent Craven, say that the layer of mucus in a dog’s nose helps it pick up and sort scents as they travel to receptors.

Or, as New Scientist magazine put it, “Dogs extraordinary ability to sniff out anything from cocaine to cancer turns out to owe much to the gunk inside their nose.”

Dogs have many more nerve cells in their nasal cavities — and a complex network of snot-coated tubes that also “pre-sorts” smells, which may make it easier for the brain to identify them.

Craven and his colleagues used MRI images of a dog’s nasal airways to develop computer models of how air travels thorugh them. The researchers observed that different molecules were picked up by nerve cells at different points along the nasal passages.