Your Beloved Pet Is Old. Should You Clone It?
Melvin was a special dog. A mixture of Catahoula and Doberman with black and tan markings, he was the office greeter, barking hellos to everyone who visited the Dupont Veterinary Clinic in Lafayette, Louisiana, which is owned by his human companions, Dr. Phillip Dupont and his wife, Paula. The couple say he's the best dog they ever owned.
When Melvin passed away, having two identical replicas helped ease the couple's grief.
He seemed to have an uncanny knack for understanding what they were saying, he could find lost car keys in tall grasses and the Duponts trusted him so much they felt comfortable having him babysit their grandson unattended in the backyard.
So when the 75-pound canine turned 9 and began to show signs of age, the Duponts sent off some of his skin cells to a lab in South Korea, the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, to have him cloned. The Duponts toured the South Korean facilities and were satisfied that the animals were being treated well. While the first cloned puppy died from distemper, the second attempt produced two healthy animals—which the couple named Ken and Henry. When Melvin did pass away nearly two years later, in 2014, having two identical replicas helped ease the couple's grief. Even though it cost about $70,000 to clone Melvin, it was well worth it. "Melvin gave us a lot of pleasure," says Paula Dupont, "and this was less than the price of a new Land Cruiser."
As the technology improves, costs will tumble, making pet cloning more affordable for the mainstream.
The news has been filled recently with stories of celebrities such as Barbra Streisand or billionaire Barry Diller and his fashion icon wife, Diane von Furstenberg, spending big bucks to preserve their beloved pets—a practice New York magazine called "a laughable, extravagant waste of money." But cloning Fido isn't just for the ultra-wealthy anymore. Texas-based ViaGen now offers a domestic cloning service that will replicate Lassie for $50,000 and Garfield's kittens for a mere $25,000. While the exact number of cloned pets isn't known, the South Korean company says it has cloned about 800 pets while ViaGen has cloned about 100 cats and dogs. And as the technology improves, costs will tumble, making it more affordable for the mainstream, says Ron Gillespie, who heads PerPETuate, a Massachusetts-based outfit that collects and cryo preserves pet DNA, and works closely with ViaGen.
Even if the animals are genetic twins, biologists say, there are no guarantees their personalities will match, too.
While replicating Fido is becoming more feasible, should you? Animal rights organizations like The Humane Society and PETA are sharply critical of the practice, which is largely unregulated, and think it's outrageous to spend $50,000 or more to preserve Fluffy's genetic makeup when millions of cats and dogs are languishing in shelters and millions more are euthanized every year. And even if the animals are genetic twins, biologists say, there are no guarantees their personalities will match, too. Like humans, dogs' personalities are influenced by their environment and there are always variations in how the genes are expressed--although the Duponts say that Ken and Henry seem more like Melvin every day. "Their personalities are identical," says Paula.
Clones Ken and Henry, with Dr. Dupont and 10-year-old Melvin. Though all three dogs are genetic twins, their markings differ because the environment can influence how genes are expressed.
Still, the loss of a beloved pet can be incredibly painful, and in some cases, cloning can help deal with deep psychological wounds. When Monni Must's daughter died suddenly at age 28, the Michigan-based photographer adopted her child's black Lab, Billy Bean. As the dog got older and frailer, Must realized she couldn't handle losing her last link to her daughter—so she ponied up $50,000 to have the animal cloned. "I knew that I was falling apart," Must told Agence France-Presse. "The thought of Billy dying was just more than I could handle."
But these heated disputes miss what bioethicists believe is the real ethical dilemma—the fate of the female animals that provide the eggs and gestate the cloned puppies. "This issue tends to get framed as 'it's their personal choice, it's their money and they can do what they want with it,'" says Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist and author of Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. "But this whole enterprise has all this collateral damage and behind-the-scenes impacts that people ignore. No one is talking about the dogs who are sacrificing themselves for this indulgence, and are suffering and being tormented just to have your clone."
"Even in the best-case scenarios, the cloned pet may go through several rounds of failed reproductive attempts—failed pregnancies, still births, and deformities."
Animal cloning, of course, is not new. Dolly, the sheep, made her debut in 1996 as the first cloned mammal. In 2005, Korea's Sooam Biotech cloned the first dog, and cloning horses and cows has become almost routine. Typically, the cloning process for dogs is fairly uncomplicated. It entails the use of a group of female dogs whose hormones are artificially manipulated with drugs to promote them to produce eggs. The eggs are then surgically harvested from donor dogs' ovaries. The immature eggs are stripped of their genetic information and then the pet's DNA is fused with the egg. When the embryo begins to develop, it is then transplanted to the womb of a surrogate dog.
However, cloning can have a high failure rate. When South Korea's Sooam Biotech lab cloned the first dog in 2005, there were 1000 failures—which means that number of eggs were fertilized and began to gestate, but at some point their development failed. And this figure doesn't include the number of dogs born with deformities serious enough that they are incompatible with life and need to be euthanized. "Even in the best-case scenarios, the cloned pet may go through several rounds of failed reproductive attempts—failed pregnancies, still births, and deformities," says Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "You can't do just one egg and one transfer. That won't happen. There is no guarantee that the very first time you will have a healthy animal. They're not miracle workers and you can't fight biology."
"You just have to let your pet go. It's all part of the experience."
But Ron Gillespie, who's been in the animal breeding business for decades, thinks these fears are overblown and that cloning is similar to the selective breeding that goes on all the time with cattle and even with champion racehorses. "We're really the victim of a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding," he says. "Right now, on average, we're dealing with three dogs: two that supply eggs and one to carry the embryo to term."
Still, this debate skirts the hard realities: dogs and cats simply have shorter lifespans than humans, and ethicists and animal rights activists believe there are better ways to deal with that grief. "You just have to let your pet go," says Hyun. "It's all part of the experience."
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.