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."
On the evening of November 28, 1942, more than 1,000 revelers from the Boston College-Holy Cross football game jammed into the Cocoanut Grove, Boston's oldest nightclub. When a spark from faulty wiring accidently ignited an artificial palm tree, the packed nightspot, which was only designed to accommodate about 500 people, was quickly engulfed in flames. In the ensuing panic, hundreds of people were trapped inside, with most exit doors locked. Bodies piled up by the only open entrance, jamming the exits, and 490 people ultimately died in the worst fire in the country in forty years.
"People couldn't get out," says Dr. Kenneth Marshall, a retired plastic surgeon in Boston and president of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee. "It was a tragedy of mammoth proportions."
Within a half an hour of the start of the blaze, the Red Cross mobilized more than five hundred volunteers in what one newspaper called a "Rehearsal for Possible Blitz." The mayor of Boston imposed martial law. More than 300 victims—many of whom subsequently died--were taken to Boston City Hospital in one hour, averaging one victim every eleven seconds, while Massachusetts General Hospital admitted 114 victims in two hours. In the hospitals, 220 victims clung precariously to life, in agonizing pain from massive burns, their bodies ravaged by infection.
The scene of the fire.
Boston Public Library
Tragic Losses Prompted Revolutionary Leaps<p>But there is a silver lining: this horrific disaster prompted dramatic changes in safety regulations to prevent another catastrophe of this magnitude and led to the development of medical techniques that eventually saved millions of lives. It transformed burn care treatment and the use of plasma on burn victims, but most importantly, it introduced to the public a new wonder drug that revolutionized medicine, midwifed the birth of the modern pharmaceutical industry, and nearly doubled life expectancy, from 48 years at the turn of the 20<sup>th</sup> century to 78 years in the post-World War II years.</p><p>The devastating grief of the survivors also led to the first published study of post-traumatic stress disorder by pioneering psychiatrist Alexandra Adler, daughter of famed Viennese psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, who was a student of Freud. Dr. Adler studied the anxiety and depression that followed this catastrophe, according to the <em>New York Times</em>, and "later applied her findings to the treatment World War II veterans."</p><p>Dr. Ken Marshall is intimately familiar with the lingering psychological trauma of enduring such a disaster. His mother, an Irish immigrant and a nurse in the surgical wards at Boston City Hospital, was on duty that cold Thanksgiving weekend night, and didn't come home for four days. "For years afterward, she'd wake up screaming in the middle of the night," recalls Dr. Marshall, who was four years old at the time. "Seeing all those bodies lined up in neat rows across the City Hospital's parking lot, still in their evening clothes. It was always on her mind and memories of the horrors plagued her for the rest of her life."</p><p>The sheer magnitude of casualties prompted overwhelmed physicians to try experimental new procedures that were later successfully used to treat thousands of battlefield casualties. Instead of cutting off blisters and using dyes and tannic acid to treat burned tissues, which can harden the skin, they applied gauze coated with petroleum jelly. Doctors also refined the formula for using plasma--the fluid portion of blood and a medical technology that was just four years old--to replenish bodily liquids that evaporated because of the loss of the protective covering of skin.</p>
From Forgotten Lab Experiment to Wonder Drug<p>In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered the curative powers of penicillin, which promised to eradicate infectious pathogens that killed millions every year. But the road to mass producing enough of the highly unstable mold was littered with seemingly unsurmountable obstacles and it remained a forgotten laboratory curiosity for over a decade. But Fleming never gave up and penicillin's eventual rescue from obscurity was a landmark in scientific history. </p><p>In 1940, a group at Oxford University, funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation, isolated enough penicillin to test it on twenty-five mice, which had been infected with lethal doses of streptococci. Its therapeutic effects were miraculous—the untreated mice died within hours, while the treated ones played merrily in their cages, undisturbed. Subsequent tests on a handful of patients, who were brought back from the brink of death, confirmed that penicillin was indeed a wonder drug. But Britain was then being ravaged by the German Luftwaffe during the Blitz, and there were simply no resources to devote to penicillin during the Nazi onslaught.</p><p>In June of 1941, two of the Oxford researchers, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, embarked on a clandestine mission to enlist American aid. Samples of the temperamental mold were stored in their coats. By October, the Roosevelt Administration had recruited four companies—Merck, Squibb, Pfizer and Lederle—to team up in a massive, top-secret development program. Merck, which had more experience with fermentation procedures, swiftly pulled away from the pack and every milligram they produced was zealously hoarded.</p><p>After the nightclub fire, the government ordered Merck to dispatch to Boston whatever supplies of penicillin that they could spare and to refine any crude penicillin broth brewing in Merck's fermentation vats. After working in round-the-clock relays over the course of three days, on the evening of December 1<sup>st</sup>, 1942, a refrigerated truck containing thirty-two liters of injectable penicillin left Merck's Rahway, New Jersey plant. It was accompanied by a convoy of police escorts through four states before arriving in the pre-dawn hours at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dozens of people were rescued from near-certain death in the first public demonstration of the powers of the antibiotic, and the existence of penicillin could no longer be kept secret from inquisitive reporters and an exultant public. The next day, the <em>Boston Globe</em> called it "priceless" and <em>Time</em> magazine dubbed it a "wonder drug."</p><p>Within fourteen months, penicillin production escalated exponentially, churning out enough to save the lives of thousands of soldiers, including many from the Normandy invasion. And in October 1945, just weeks after the Japanese surrender ended World War II, Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. But penicillin didn't just save lives—it helped build some of the most innovative medical and scientific companies in history, including Merck, Pfizer, Glaxo and Sandoz. </p><p>"Every war has given us a new medical advance," concludes Marshall. "And penicillin was <em>the</em> great scientific advance of World War II."</p>
Conner Curran was diagnosed with Duchenne's muscular dystrophy in 2015 when he was four years old. It's the most severe form of the genetic disease, with a nearly inevitable progression toward total paralysis. Many Duchenne's patients die in their teens; the average lifespan is 26.
But Conner, who is now 10, has experienced some astonishing improvements in recent years. He can now walk for more than two miles at a time – an impossible journey when he was younger.
In 2018, Conner became the very first patient to receive gene therapy specific to treating Duchenne's. In the initial clinical trial of nine children, nearly 80 percent reacted positively to the treatment). A larger-scale stage 3 clinical trial is currently underway, with initial results expected next year.
Gene therapy involves altering the genes in an individual's cells to stop or treat a disease. Such a procedure may be performed by adding new gene material to existing cells, or editing the defective genes to improve their functionality.
Conner Curran holding a football post gene therapy treatment.
Courtesy of the Curran family