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Sweet Replaceable You 

The Baton Rouge company Lazaron Biotechnologies says that cloning cats and dogs is right around the corner -- and pet owners are responding in droves.

John and Beth Giovanelli knew their dog had to be put to sleep. But when they brought Smedley to the veterinarian for that final visit, the couple had the future in mind.

Just after the shaggy, 14-year-old mixed breed slipped into death, the veterinarian cut a pea-sized graft from the dog's abdomen, placed it in a cold pack and mailed it to a Baton Rouge laboratory that is advancing the technology that the Giovanellis hope will one day clone Smedley.

"It definitely does help when you have a one-of-a-kind pet, knowing all is not lost," says John Giovanelli, a Peachtree City, Ga. chiropractor. "Not that it was easy, but it helped."

Giovanelli learned about potential pet cloning while he and his wife nursed Smedley, who suffered from terminal heart and kidney disease. He searched the Internet for a company that would store Smedley's cells until the technology to clone dogs should become available.

The couple found Lazaron Biotechnologies LLC, a 2-year-old laboratory affiliated with Louisiana State University. Lazaron preserves frozen animal tissue samples in anticipation of one day cloning them -- a scientific advancement that company co-founders Richard Denniston and Brett Reggio believe will occur within the next few years.

"It's not such a far stretch," says Denniston, explaining that there have already been six species cloned, with offspring produced on these varied species from skin biopsies.

Researchers first expanded cloning techniques on livestock because they hold such global economic significance, he adds. After scientists cloned Dolly the sheep in 1997, farmers began clamoring to have cloning performed on their most profitable animals. Soon, researchers were flooded with requests to begin cloning cats, dogs, and other pets.

It was a pair of pet owners, in fact, who launched the most ambitious dog cloning research project in America. In 1998, the anonymous owners of a pound mutt named Missy gave $2.3 million to Texas A&M University to launch a research project aimed at cloning their dog. Funding for the "Missyplicity Project" has since been increased, with 2003 as the target date for a new Missy.

At this point, Lazaron isn't so much a cloning lab as a gene bank, a place where viable cells containing an animal's DNA are stored in liquid nitrogen. Denniston won't give the exact number of tissue samples in storage, but he numbers his clients in the hundreds.

There is no guarantee that the cells will successfully clone any of their animals. Even so, the Lazaron's banks include cells from dogs, cats, several varieties of exotic and endangered species, horses, even a llama named The Fiduciary. The company's extensive Web site includes pet photos along with owners' stated reasons for seeking cloning:

· "Nothing can replace our (Dalmatian) Beanie, but we feel much better knowing a small part of her is still with us."

· "I could reproduce essentially the same Golden Retriever I cared for so much when science has learned to correct the congenital disease from which she suffered."

· "I have never known a horse who suits me as well as Malibu. I do not know how I would reproduce his unique character without cloning."

· "I could have a 'twin' of my pet when I retire in 20 years and have the time to enjoy him."

It's not yet possible for scientists to clone dogs, but that doesn't bother the Giovanellis. "We'd probably be willing to spend five or ten thousand [dollars] once it becomes available," says John Giovanelli, who spent $700 to have Smedley's cells preserved and pays $10 per month for cryostorage.

"A lot of people out there have an argument against pet cloning, and they have valid points. But then again, we want the dog back for us. It's a little selfish, I guess."

Cats will be the first pets to be cloned, predicts Lazaron co-founder Brett Reggio, who is working on his Ph.D. in Reproductive Physiology at LSU. Reggio's research involves cloning farm animals -- since last year, he says, he's produced a number of cloned goats.

Currently, Reggio is a member of one of three U.S. research teams racing to successfully clone a cat. And it's not just housecats. Since last year, he has worked with the feline population at the Audubon Center for the Research of Endangered Species (ACRES).

The nonprofit ACRES does not directly collaborate with Lazaron, but has a partnership with both LSU and the University of New Orleans, training graduate students in research methods. It was through ACRES' agreement with LSU that Reggio began working with ACRES director Dr. Betsy Dresser.

Among the creatures to have its genetic material banked at Lazaron is Jazz, ACRES' celebrated African wildcat who was born from a surrogate mother, a domestic cat. "We're looking at this entire pet cloning business as a way to preserve endangered species," says Dresser, who adds that the center has been pursuing cloning for about a year.

Endangered feline and canine species across the globe will benefit from cloning research, says Dresser, but so will domestic dogs and cats. Scientists are hoping to ease their overpopulation by coming up with a contraception that can be widely distributed to strays and feral cat colonies, perhaps through food.

"In that case," Dresser says, "endangered species will help their counterparts, the domestic pets."

Dresser guesses that a cat will successfully be cloned within two years. ACRES has already banked tissue samples from a number of species under the belief that once cloning technology becomes more readily available, extinction could become a thing of the past.

Over at the Missyplicity Project, scientists are not only seeking to clone Missy, but also to reproduce outstanding service animals such as search-and-rescue or guide dogs. The Missyplicity Project generated a commercial spin-off similar to Lazaron -- Genetic Savings and Clone of College Station, Texas. Other competitors in the burgeoning field include PerPETuate and Advanced Cell Technology, both of Massachusetts.

Cloning is still an inexact and incomplete science -- and some offspring of cloned livestock have been miscarried, stillborn or had birth defects. Some worry that clones are at risk of genetic disorders, or that genetic offspring of a favorite animal will wind up as mutated creatures again and again before the technique is perfected.

Dresser acknowledges that cloning sometimes involves deformed embryos, but she adds that such defects are not as severe as many fear them to be. "You don't have extreme deformities," Dresser says. "Certainly, if that were the case, we wouldn't be doing this.

"[Cloning] is a powerful tool," she adds, "and it just needs lots of work."

Lazaron co-founder Brett Reggio recalls kicking around names for the fledgling company, trying to come up with something that would convey a life-after-death quality. Someone mentioned Lazarus, the biblical figure brought back to life by Jesus.

"It's not exactly resurrecting from the dead, but it is a play on the word Lazarus," says Reggio, explaining that the technology does, in a convoluted way, keep part of an animal alive. "Once you harvest those cells and freeze them in liquid nitrogen, the animal can live out its normal lifespan and die. But you still have those cells in a tank, and you can get a genetic copy."

Cells from an animal can remain viable for about 48 hours after the animal has died, Reggio adds, a fact that contributes to the science's resurrection-like mystique.

In basic reproduction, a sperm and egg unite, with each providing half the genetic material needed to make an individual organism. Both halves of this genetic matter fuse to create the individual's DNA.

When an animal is cloned, researchers take an egg cell and suck out its nucleus, which contains its genetic matter. They then insert the nucleus of a donor cell. That contains all the DNA of the original animal, so when the egg cell begins dividing, the result is a carbon copy of the first.

Unlike the biblical Lazarus, a clone is not the same organism as the original. A cloned animal can be viewed as a cross between the original animal's offspring and its identical twin.

A clone starts life as an infant bearing the DNA of the original, but its personality is partly characterized by its unique experiences. How much of one's personality is shaped by genes, and how much by environment, is faithfully explored in the "nature vs. nurture" debate in psychology. But it has never been proven. Like identical twins, a clone and an original may share the same genetic makeup, but they won't necessarily share the same likes and dislikes, the same personality traits, even the exact same physical features.

Lazaron clients say they are aware of this caveat. "It'll be interesting to see what the similarities are when the time comes," says Laura Frey, of Black Mountain, N.C., who hired Lazaron to store the cells of her now-dead cat Edward.

"I think there's an interplay with your soul and your experience and your genetics, and only one of them is going to be the same," Frey says. "I would hope that [a clone] would share some personality traits with Edward. I would expect it to share some."

Carolyn Edwards, a Park Ridge, Ill., psychologist, says she has no illusions about receiving an exact copy of her Afghan hound, Aria, whose cells she stored with Lazaron shortly before the dog died.

Edwards raises other Afghan hounds, but says Aria was particularly special because she would instinctively comfort Edwards' patients during counseling sessions. "It was the most beautiful thing. I never trained her to do any of that," Edwards says. "She was just a sweet soul, funny, outgoing -- just a personality that I'd never seen in another animal."

Edwards adds that saving Aria's cells helped with the grief of losing the dog. "Is my decision to save her tissue a way of dealing with grief? My answer to that would be partially yes and partially no," she says. "When we grieve a lost person or loved pet, we try to preserve the relationship that we're losing in some way."

Lazaron seems to promise relief for such loss. On its Web site page titled "Saving Your Animal's Life," the company poses the following question and answer: "Does your loved animal's singular genetic character have to die? No. It can live on." But Edwards cautions that if owners are holding out that their pet will be "resurrected," they may never truly accept the animal is gone.

"I think people have to be aware that you're not really connecting with the lost person or pet when you clone -- it's a genetic copy, but it's not the same," Edwards says. "I think in our grief, sometimes we lose that."

The death of a pet "is a very real loss," says Jamie Boudreaux, an adjunct professor of social work at Tulane University, who teaches courses on death, loss and grieving. "My biggest fear (about cloning) is people will be disappointed in the cloned offspring because it's a different pet. ... I think it would be difficult for the pet because the owner might have expectations. 'Taffy used to be able to do this, Taffy used to have these tricks that she could perform.'"

Boudreaux cautions against this "disappointment factor" in deciding to clone your pet. "I would have difficulty with a company trying to sell the idea that you never have to grieve the loss of a pet, because your pet is forever with you through the first clone, second clone. ... "

Cloning also faces criticism from those who fear the technology will warp the "natural" reproductive process. Ethicists wonder about the implications of technology that would make just one individual necessary to produce an offspring, instead of two.

Edwards recounts that her veterinarian appeared "horrified" when she asked him to take a skin sample from Aria during the dog's cancer surgery and to pack it in Lazaron's tissue retrieval kit. "They finally did it, but they were less than enthusiastic."

Other critics fear the process of cloning dead pets might be the first step toward offering parents a chance to clone a deceased child. But even would-be pet cloners say they hope science doesn't cross that line.

John Giovanelli, owner of the late Smedley, puts it this way: "A pet doesn't have to deal with the consequences of being cloned, whereas a child would always have to deal with that. They're going to know they're a clone, and that might mess them up."

One unexpected result of pet cloning is that it could generate newly popular strains of mixed-breed dogs and cats.

In fact, no one can figure out exactly what breeds make up Missy, the subject of the Missyplicity Project. Photos displayed on the project's Web site show a glossy, multicolored husky-border collie-German shepherd-coyote mix -- or, possibly, none of the above. Missy's exotic genetic cocktail is what inspired her owners to have her cloned, they say.

On the Web site, Missy's owner writes: "Every day, we hear the same comments about Missy: She's so beautiful! Where did you get her? Where can I find one like her? And especially: What breed is she? Everyone asks and seems ready to go immediately to get one just like her -- but what exactly is she? Who knows."

Mutt owners clamor for Lazaron to reproduce their beloved mixed breeds, a trend that surprised co-founder Richard Denniston. "Originally, when talking about doing this, we decided these [cells] would be from the winner of the Westminster Dog Show, owners who want to propagate those genetics. In fact, that hasn't been the case. The majority are owners of animals that are mixed breeds or mutts. When you stop and think about it, it really makes sense ... if you have a mutt, there's no way to reproduce that genetic mix."

That's why the Giovanellis hope to clone Smedley, who resembled a cross between a miniature sheepdog and Snoopy. "He was the coolest dog," Beth Giovanelli says. "People kept asking what breed he was. You can't find another dog like that."

John Giovanelli says he hopes cloning remains limited to "a small, unique niche market" for people who want to see another version of a distinctive mixed breed. "I know it's controversial," Giovanelli says. "I have a friend who's a vet who's against it. I wouldn't want to see this get too widespread because I hate seeing so many stray pets that are euthanized every year. There is already an overpopulation."

Laura Frey had also never encountered any cat like her "late, great Edward," who stayed healthy for most of his 20 years. "I feel like his genetics were superb. He wasn't a purebred animal; he was neutered before I got him, so I never had the opportunity to breed him," she says.

Ultimately, the reasons why people seek to clone their pets might be as diverse as the breeds of pets themselves. On the Lazaron Web site, Carolyn Edwards, the psychologist with the late Afghan hound Aria, lists her reasons for cloning. "Aria was my 'sweet soul,'" she writes. "I'll never be able to replace her. And yet we have this miracle of reproductive science that will, hopefully, allow us to remain connected in a unique way."

click to enlarge Aria the Afghan hound is one of hundreds of animals whose genetic material is being preserved for future cloning
  • Aria the Afghan hound is one of hundreds of animals whose genetic material is being preserved for future cloning


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