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."
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."