First Gene-Edited Dog Cloned in China Raises Ethical Concerns
wechat_bg

2017-07-10 11:54:10

A beagle puppy recently born in a Chinese laboratory is the first dog in the world to have been successfully cloned from a gene-edited parent, state-owned newspaper Science and Technology Daily reported Thursday.

Longlong was born on May 28 from a surrogate mother, but a test proved on Wednesday that he is genetically identical to another dog, 2-year-old Apple.

The dog’s birth marks a breakthrough in cloning research that will potentially allow for cheaper medical research, but it also raises ethical issues. When Apple was an embryo, his genes were modified so he would develop atherosclerosis, a disease that causes blood clots. Genetically identical Longlong will, too.

The cloned puppy was born at Sinogene, a biotech company in Beijing. Lai Liangxue, the company’s head scientist, told Sixth Tone that Longlong’s birth means China will now be able to rely on its own clones for biomedical research — to test disease treatments, for example. Moreover, cloning the animals will be more cost-effective than editing their genes, the company said.

In 2005, the world’s first cloned dog, an Afghan hound called “Snuppy,” was born in South Korea, and named “Invention of the Year” by Time magazine. Since then, the country has been the world leader in the science of cloning dogs, which are especially difficult to clone compared with other mammals. Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, was born in 1996.

“I believe that we have achieved a cloning success rate close to that of the South Korean teams,” Lai said. Half of the surrogate dogs were successfully impregnated during their experiment, and of these, two have given birth to a total of three puppies, with Longlong being the very first. Sinogene invested 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) into the project, the company’s deputy general manager, Zhao Jianping, told Sixth Tone.

Sinogene plans to apply the technology to medical research, as well as to the cloning of police dogs and pets. Zhao said some dog owners have already reached out to his team, asking for their deceased or sick dogs to be cloned. In South Korea, cloning a pet dog currently costs around $100,000. “Our price will be half of that,” he said. “We hope to popularize [such cloning] for the public.”

Zhou Yujuan, a professor at Hebei University who has been experimenting on a cure for atherosclerosis using mice, told Sixth Tone that she would prefer dogs as research subjects because they are more genetically similar to humans. But, she added, this would require more funding. “Usually, we use rats or mice because they are cheaper,” she said. A gene-edited mouse with atherosclerosis costs 250 to 450 yuan, while a dog with similar symptoms does not yet have a price tag.

Environmental activists have not responded to the genetic breakthrough with likeminded enthusiasm. “Cloning is unethical,” said Guo Longpeng, the China press officer for the Asia division of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the world’s largest animal welfare organization. “Like any other laboratory animal, these animals are caged and manipulated in order to provide a lucrative bottom line.”

Guo said protection for animals is lacking under Chinese law, and, as a result, “horrible treatments are possible in those laboratories.” A regulation on lab animals published in 1988 and modified in 2011 regulates the feeding and accommodation standards for the animals but does not set guidelines for experiments.

Lai said he believes animal cloning is ethically permissible, though human cloning is not.

Currently, there are only a few companies providing cloning services in China. Boyalife Group, a company that aims to become the “biggest cloning factory” in the world, performs dog cloning in cooperation with the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, a South Korean company led by the scientist who cloned Snuppy. And Beijing Genomics Institute, a biotech company headquartered in Shenzhen, proposed to sell genetically modified mini pigs as pets beginning in 2015, but shelved the plan for unknown reasons.

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: The cloned puppy Longlong sleeps on a blanket in Beijing, May 2017. Courtesy of Sinogene)