Rich Couple Pays to Have Pet Cloned

Some entrepreneurs might get dollar signs in their eyes at the thought of being the first to offer pet cloning services. Now one lucky scientist--Mark Westhusin, director of the cloning lab at Texas A&M University in College Station--is realizing the dream. A wealthy U.S. couple has handed him a hefty $2.3 million to clone Missy, their beloved dog.

Westhusin was chosen early this year by a three-person review board of U.S. and Canadian cloning experts, says Lou Hawthorne, a San Francisco communications consultant who is coordinating "Project Missyplicity." He says Westhusin's lab, the only one in the country to have produced puppies by transplanting embryos into a surrogate mother, was clearly the most qualified of three applicants deemed to have been "world class." Some scientists have derided the project, he says, but "the pooh-poohing usually stops when they realize who's working on it." Other members of the crack cloning team are tissue-culture experts Bob Burghardt and Duane Kraemer, who conducted the dog embryo transfers a decade ago.

Westhusin says "we're just getting started" on the 2-year project. In June, 12-year-old Missy, whose traits suggest a mix of border collie and husky, was flown to Texas to donate skin and mucosal cells. But a lot of basic research will be needed before any cloning attempt, since far more is known about cows, sheep, and mice than about canine reproductive biology. Westhusin is optimistic that a Missy clone will be achieved, but he says that in any case the information gained from the work will be useful on many fronts, such as applying various reproductive technologies on endangered canids and developing new types of pet contraception.

Although Missy's owners want to remain anonymous, the Missyplicity project has all the trappings of the major public relations venture, with a picture-filled Web site and its own code of ethical care for test pooches. ("Every dog shall be guaranteed a daily minimum of one hour of outdoor playtime--weather permitting, indoors otherwise--with people hired specifically for this task.") Every aspect is also being taped and filmed. This will be "the most thoroughly documented cloning venture to date," says Hawthorne.

One early skeptic about the project, who was approached for advice last year, is Princeton University biologist Lee Silver. He's changed his mind: "Based on what has happened since, and the quality of the scientific team, I would say there is now a good chance they'll succeed."