SEOUL Snuppy, a 101-day-old Afghan hound, scampered on a rain-soaked lawn and nuzzled journalists’ cameras at a university campus here on Wednesday, presenting himself as proof that man could clone his best friend.
Snuppy was present for the announcement that scientists had cloned a dog for the first time. The dog had been considered one of the most difficult animals to clone, and Snuppy was there to show that it had been done.
A team led by Hwang Woo Suk and Lee Byeong Chun of Seoul National University announced that it had achieved the dog cloning, representing another milestone for the team of South Korean stem cell experts.
With human cloning ruled out as unethical, scientists have been racing to master cloning of other animals, hoping that some day this would help them find cures for human diseases.
The Korean stem cell team stunned the world last year by cloning a human embryo and gleaning stem cells from it, which theoretically could be directed to grow into any human body part.
Hwang said the next step for his team was to develop dog stem cells and demonstrate that cloned stem cells in dogs were safe and effective for treating diseases that afflict humans as well as dogs, including diabetes, cancer, sleeping disorder and dementia.
Gerald Schatten, a professor of cell biology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said: “Wouldn’t it be a marvelous thing that our best friend will be the first beneficiary of stem cell medicine? And in learning whether it’s safe or effective in our companions, we may also know whether it is safe or effective for our loved ones.” Schatten has acted as a consultant on Hwang’s research.
The creation of Snuppy, short for Seoul National University puppy, is a testament to South Korea’s penchant for dedicating national resources to a sector it believes it can excel in globally. After semiconductors and shipbuilding, the latest focus is biotechnology.
While the public is divided over stem cell research in countries like the United States, Hwang has become a national hero in South Korea, with full government backing.
South Korea is spending $43 million to build two new labs for him, and in June, it made him the first state-designated “supreme scientist” selection, entitling him to 3 billion won, or $2.9 million, in annual support.
Seoul also wants to turn South Korea into a global hub for stem cell research, endorsing Hwang’s plan to open an international stem cell bank by October to help advance the quest to grow replacement tissue to treat diseases.
Last week, the government approved a research project by a genetic engineering laboratory that would harvest stem cells from frozen “leftover” human embryos in fertility clinics and attempt to grow them into specific cell types.
This was the first time that South Korea had approved such a stem cell project since the country adopted a law in January that banned the cloning of human beings.
But the law allowed stem cell research for medical purposes. The Health Ministry has 27 research stem cell projects waiting for its review.
Hwang is more popular in South Korea than any pop star and the government has issued a postage stamp in his honor. This week, the Foreign Ministry said it would assign an ambassador to help him deal with international aspects of his research.
It is a big turnaround for Hwang, whose work had been dismissed when he cloned a cow in 1999.
In May, Hwang advanced his technology further when he stated that his team had created the first human embryonic stem cells that genetically matched those of injured or sick patients.
That creation was hailed as a giant step toward studying the origin of diseases and cultivating stem cells that might one day repair or replace diseased organs, severed spinal cords, or brain cells destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.
To reach that goal, Hang said, stem cell research in animals was crucial.
“Sheep, cows, cats, goats, deer, mules, horses, rabbits, pigs and mice – all these animals have been cloned,” Hwang said. “The dog had been the last domesticated animal that defied cloning, and we have surmounted the challenge.”
Hwang posed with Snuppy and Tai, an Afghan hound from which Snuppy was cloned. Also present was Snuppy’s surrogate mother, a yellow Labrador retriever.
South Koreans have an obsession with becoming the first in the world, and the national pride in Hwang’s work has forestalled ethical battles.
The news release from the Ministry of Science and Technology had a nationalistic spin, saying: “This again proves that the animal cloning and biotechnology of South Korea is at the top of the world.”
Hwang, 52, grew up in a rural village and reportedly said that he had spent so much time with his family cow as a boy that he could communicate with it eye to eye.
Hwang, who is applying for a patent on his team’s technology, says he wants no part in the commercial pet-cloning industry. He also called for a worldwide ban on human cloning, which he called “ethically outrageous” and “technically impossible.”
“Cloned human beings are merely a science fiction fantasy,” Hwang said last month. International Herald Tribune