Cloning of animals is becoming a big, global business, and Hwang Woo-Suk is a major player here.
Hwang Woo-Suk and animal cloning
It turns out that this reproductive cloning of animals goes well beyond making duplicates of pets for sentimental customers at $100,000 a copy. Cloning of livestock by agribusinesses is becoming fairly common. Some are also trying to de-extinct woolly mammoths by cloning too, something that I oppose (see top 5 reasons why it might be a really bad idea) even though admittedly it sounds pretty cool.
More broadly, factory-scale production of copied animals is an expanding business. A familiar face in the human therapeutic cloning world (where the goal is to make ES cells) is getting more involved in this industrial-scale animal cloning: Hwang Woo-Suk. Hwang is well known for past bogus research on human therapeutic cloning research trying to make embryonic stem cells and other ethical transgressions.
Today he is far more associated with duplicating animals using reproductive cloning (aka “Star Wars” type cloning). For a handy diagram explaining the two types of cloning see here. Hwang cloned the first dog Snuppy years ago and now leads a Korean animal cloning company called Sooam.
China is an important emerging player in animal cloning and Hwang and Sooam are forging ties in that country. According to Nature, Hwang has been working with genomics researchers in China and now has opened a branch office for animal cloning in Shandong Province, China. Bloomberg reports on:
a partnership between Sooam and BoyaLife, a fast-growing Chinese biotechnology company with 28 subsidiaries and operations in 16 provinces. Sometime early next year, ground will be broken for a 667,000-square-foot research laboratory on a spectacular plateau of yellow grass and scrubby pines facing the Yellow Sea.
BoyaLife leading scientist Xu Xiao-chun was quoted by Bloomberg that “The point is to expand cloning in China…In China we do things on a massive scale,” he says. “But we want to do all this not just for profit, but also for history.”
Currently Sooam on its own can clone a few hundred dogs a year, but perhaps with the partnership with BoyaLife, they could expand to thousands of dog, pig, and cow clones as well as perhaps other types of animal clones each year.
I don’t necessarily have a problem with animal cloning per se, but I do wonder if it could be taken to an extreme where ethical issues arise and in addition the work done by these animal cloners also sometimes extends uncomfortably into the human arena.
For example, according to its website BoyaLife also operates the largest human stem cell bank in the world.
There’s definitely something disconcerting about one-stop shopping for both animal reproductive cloning and banking of human stem cells?
And Hwang remains quite interested in human stem cells and cloning as well. According to Nature, “Woo Suk Hwang intends to return to human therapeutic cloning.”
This convergence of animal reproductive cloning, human therapeutic cloning, stem cell technology, and powerful genomics technology (all separately on their own arguably having the power to do positive things) nonetheless is a potentially explosive combination that could have troubling repercussions.
More specifically, I am most concerned that this confluence could help pave the way to human reproductive cloning.
Think that’s hyperbole?
As animal cloning becomes more widespread as well as accepted as normal by society and as human therapeutic cloning (the ES cell type, but the technology of which can also be used to help in the pipeline to actually clone people) advances as it has in the past year, human cloning may not be so far-out or far-off.
I would note that some folks are talking more and more from a practical perspective about cloning human beings. For example, fertility clinics are starting to talk about using human cloning as a “treatment” for infertility as well. Talk of human cloning also ranges from cloning children that parents have lost to illness (a question I’m increasing getting from readers of this blog who are parents who have suffered this tragedy) to cloning superstars such as John Lennon, Elvis, and others.
I would also remind you that human cloning is legal in the US. The FDA says it has regulatory authority over it, but realistically that doesn’t mean much.
Heck, what if someone went ahead and tried to clone people, what could go wrong? A lot.
This is a cutting edge, rapidly evolving area of biomedical science that will be fascinating even if also somewhat unnerving to watch in the coming years.