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$50,000 Cloned Kitten Truly Isn’t One of a Kind

Times Staff Writer

A Texas woman who said she paid $50,000 to a Northern California biotech company received an 8-week-old clone of her dead cat, Nicky, the first known sale of a cloned pet.

Genetic Savings & Clone Inc., based in Sausalito, handed over Little Nicky, a Maine coon cat, this month at a company holiday party in San Francisco.

“He is identical. I have not been able to see one difference,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Julie.

The company has been working for more than four years on the cat cloning process. Its founder, Arizona billionaire John Sperling, funded the research at Texas A&M; University that led to the 2001 cloning of the first cat, CC, or Carbon Copy.

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Company spokesman Ben Carlson said four other people had cats on order -- at $50,000 each. He said the clones were expected to be ready by spring.

The announcement of Little Nicky sparked criticism from some animal protection groups, who saw the event as opening the door to new problems.

“There are millions of cats being killed in shelters every year,” said Michael Mountain, president of Best Friends Animal Society. “There is no shortage of cats; so why do they have to do this?”

Mountain described the cloning of animals -- still a complex procedure that can result in deformities and genetic abnormalities -- as an inhumane game of trial and error.

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“You’re dealing with a Dr. Frankenstein situation,” he said.

Lou Hawthorne, chief executive of Genetic Savings & Clone, said there was no denying the desire of some pet owners to bring back their deceased companions.

“We’re not curing cancer, but we believe we are adding to the sum of joy in the world,” Hawthorne said.

Dr. Michael Grodin, a psychiatrist and director of medical ethics at Boston University School of Medicine and Public Health, said he saw no ethical problem with the procedure.

“Many people have a better and stronger and more humane relationship with their pets than they do with other human beings,” he said. “Who am I to say that somebody shouldn’t clone their cat?”

The original Nicky died in September 2003 at age 17.

“He was very beautiful,” Julie said. “He was exceptionally intelligent. He knew 11 commands.”

Julie, who said she worked in the airline industry, began investigating the possibility of cloning Nicky in 2001 after reading about the birth of CC. She said she called Texas A&M; the day of CC’s announcement.

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When Nicky died, she sent a genetic sample to Genetic Savings & Clone. Little Nicky was born Oct. 17.

“When Little Nicky yawned, I even saw two spots inside his mouth -- just like Nicky had,” Julie said. “Little Nicky loves water, like Nicky did, and he’s already jumped into the bathtub like Nicky used to do.”

Little Nicky is the fourth cat the company has cloned. The first three were born this year and have been displayed at cat shows.

Since scientists cloned the first mammal -- Dolly the sheep in 1996 -- they have repeated the feat with mice, pigs, horses and bulls.

The cloning of a cat was the result of a failed effort to clone a dog. Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix, wanted to clone a friend’s dog, Missy.

In 1998 he funded researchers at Texas A&M; to pursue the project. Discouraged by the slow progress, he started Genetic Savings & Clone in 2000, while continuing to fund the Texas scientists.

The company uses a technology known as chromatin transfer, a variation of a standard cloning technique known as nuclear transfer. The nucleus of an egg cell is replaced by genetic material from a donor cell that has first been chemically treated. The egg is then placed in a surrogate, which carries it to birth.

The process has its pitfalls.

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Hawthorne said that about one-third of the clones did not survive past 60 days.

As with in vitro fertilization for humans, it may take many tries to achieve a pregnancy. The quality of the surrogate eggs and donor cells, as well as timing, are important factors.

“It’s like a combination lock,” Hawthorne said. “Until you figure out the combination, you’ve got to spin the dial many times.”

There also are genetic factors that can make clones and originals different.

CC’s coat, for example, varied from that of its original.

When two kittens, Tabouli and Baba Ganoush -- both clones of a cat named Tahini -- were born to separate surrogate mothers in June, their markings were both identical to their original, Hawthorne said.

Gregory Stock, director of the program on medicine, technology and society at UCLA, said that the similarity between original and clone should resemble that of identical twins, who were genetically identical but had separate personalities.

Whatever the expectations, a “high-end market for cloned pets” is inevitable as technology advances, Stock said.

There are concerns that the process of cloning can create subtle abnormalities. Dolly the sheep, for example, died relatively early -- at the age of 6 -- and suffered from arthritis.

Hawthorne said the $50,000 price to clone a cat would eventually fall. Several hundred people have paid between $295 and $1,395 for the company to store genetic material from their dogs and cats to create clones if the procedure becomes more affordable.

The next frontier is to clone a dog, which has proved to be more difficult than a cat. Dogs ovulate infrequently, and their eggs are not mature upon release from the ovaries.

Hawthorne said the expectation was that dog owners would be willing to spend more to clone their pets. He said the company planned to charge its first customers at least $100,000.


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