SAN FRANCISCO – The first cloned-to-order pet sold in the United States is named Little Nicky, a 9-week-old kitten delivered to a Texas woman saddened by the loss of a cat she had owned for 17 years.
The kitten cost its owner $50,000 and was created from DNA from her beloved cat, named Nicky, who died last year.
"He is identical. His personality is the same," the owner, Julie, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. Although she agreed to be photographed with her cat, she asked that her last name and hometown not be disclosed because she said she fears being targeted by groups opposed to cloning.
Yet while Little Nicky, who was delivered two weeks ago, frolics in his new home, the kitten's creation and sale has reignited fierce ethical and scientific debate over cloning technology, which is rapidly advancing.
The company that created Little Nicky, Sausalito-based Genetic Savings and Clone (search), said it hopes by May to have produced the world's first cloned dog — a much more lucrative market than cats.
While it is based in the San Francisco Bay area, the company's cloning work will be done at its new lab in Madison, Wis.
Commercial interests already are cloning prized cattle for about $20,000 each, and scientists have cloned mice, rabbits, goats, pigs, horses — and even the endangered banteng, a wild bull that is found mostly in Indonesia.
Several research teams around the world, meanwhile, are racing to create the first cloned monkey.
Aside from human cloning, which has been achieved only at the microscopic embryo stage, no cloning project has fueled more debate than the marketing plans of Genetic Savings and Clone.
"It's morally problematic and a little reprehensible," said David Magnus (search), co-director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University (search). "For $50,000, she could have provided homes for a lot of strays."
Animals rights activists complain that new feline production systems aren't needed because thousands of stray cats are euthanized each year for want of homes.
Lou Hawthorne, Genetic Savings and Clone's chief executive, said his company purchases thousands of ovaries from spay clinics across the country. It extracts the eggs, which are combined with the genetic material from the animals to be cloned.
Critics also complain that the technology is available only to the wealthy, that using it to create house pets is frivolous and that customers grieving over lost pets have unrealistic expectations of what they're buying.
In fact, the first cat cloned in 2001 had a different coat from its genetic donor, underscoring that environment and other biological variables make it impossible to exactly duplicate animals.
"The thing that many people do not realize is that the cloned cat is not the same as the original," said Bonnie Beaver, a Texas A&M animal behaviorist who heads the American Veterinary Medical Association, which has no position on the issue. "It has a different personality. It has different life experiences. They want Fluffy, but it's not Fluffy."
Scientists also warn that cloned animals suffer from more health problems than their traditionally bred peers and that cloning is still a very inexact science. It takes many gruesome failures to produce just a single clone.
Genetic Savings and Clone said its new cloning technique, developed by animal cloning pioneer James Robl has improved survival rates, health and appearance. The new technique seeks to condense and transfer only the donor's genetic material to a surrogate's egg instead of an entire cell nucleus.
Between 15 percent and 45 percent of cloned cats born alive die within the first 30 days, Hawthorne said. But he said that range is consistent with natural births, depending on the breed of cat.
Austin, Texas-based ViaGen Inc., which has cloned hundreds of cows, pigs and goats, also is experimenting with the new cloning technique.
"The jury is still out, but the research shows it to be promising," company president Sara Davis said. "The technology is improving all the time."
Genetic Savings and Clone has been behind the creation of at least five cats since 2001, including the first one created.
It hopes to deliver as many as five more clones to customers who have paid the company's $50,000 fee. By the end of next year, it hopes to have cloned as many as 50 cats.
The company has yet to turn a profit.