The "Pride of Korea" has struck again. Pioneer South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk (search) and his research colleagues have succeeded in cloning a dog, a global first that extends the remarkable string of laboratory successes by the Seoul National University (search) professor.
Last year, Hwang's team created the world's first cloned human embryos. They followed that in May by creating the first embryonic stem cells that genetically match injured or sick patients.
Now, they've come up with Snuppy, an Afghan hound, now 14 weeks old, that Hwang's research colleague, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine (search), called "a frisky, healthy, normal, rambunctious puppy."
The goal of Hwang and his team, who reported their achievement Wednesday in the journal Nature, isn't to reproduce lovable pooches but to find ways to eventually help treat human diseases by creating a reliable research model.
Monkeys are the closest model to humans and they are crucial to medical research, but Hwang told reporters Wednesday that cloning a monkey "is technically impossible at the moment."
"Dogs share physiological characteristics with humans," Hwang, clad in his trademark white lab coat, told reporters in Seoul. "A lot of diseases that occur in dogs can be directly transferred to humans."
Embryonic stem cells are the source of all tissue. Researchers believe they can be coaxed to grow into heart, brain or nerve cells that could be used to renew ailing organs.
Hwang's previous achievements grabbed worldwide headlines and instantly made the 53-year-old a national hero in education-mad South Korea, which consistently scores in the top tier of world math and science surveys.
The cloning news was reported on the front pages of most major South Korean dailies Thursday.
"It's a matter of great national pride that such a person came from our country," Ro Suk-rae, a merchant in downtown Seoul, said of Hwang. "All Korean people are waiting for the final results of his research ... to be applied to cure humans."
The name of the cloned puppy, the lone success from more than 100 dogs implanted with more than 1,000 cloned embryos, highlights the importance of Hwang's research base. Snuppy is shorthand for "Seoul National University puppy."
Seoul National is South Korea's top school. Admission is considered a sure ticket to the corridors of power and influence here.
Researchers congratulated Hwang's team on improving techniques that might someday be medically useful.
"The ability to use the underlying technology in developing research models and eventually therapies is incredibly promising," said Robert Schenken, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. "However, the paper also points out that in dogs as in most species, cloning for reproductive purposes is unsafe."
Other animals that have been successfully cloned are sheep, cats, goats, cows, mice, pigs, rabbits, horses, deer, mules and gaur, a large wild ox in Southeast Asia.
Still, uncertainties about the health and life span of cloned animals persist; Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell nearly a decade ago, died prematurely in 2003 after developing cancer and arthritis.
The successful dog cloning also re-ignites a fierce ethical and scientific debate about the rapidly advancing technology.
Ian Wilmut, a reproductive biologist at the University of Edinburgh who produced Dolly praised Hwang but cautioned that politicians and scientists must face the larger and more delicate issue — how to extend research without crossing the moral boundary of duplicating human life in the lab.
"Successful cloning of an increasing number of species confirms the general impression that it would be possible to clone any mammalian species, including humans," Wilmut said.
At a news conference in Seoul, the cloning team also condemned the reproductive cloning of humans as "unsafe and inefficient."
Human reproductive cloning already is banned in South Korea. Other nations, including the United States, are split over whether to ban just human cloning or cloning of all kinds, including the production of stem cells.