ISFAHAN, Iran – Iranian scientists said Monday that the country's first cloned sheep is thriving 15 months after birth, eating well and frolicking among a flock of normal sheep.
The cloned male sheep named Royana was born Sept. 30, 2006 in the historic central city of Isfahan, less than two months after the country's first cloned animal, also a lamb, died within minutes of birth.
But unlike it's predecessor, Royana survived the postnatal complications typical for cloned animals and is now celebrated as Iran's scientific breakthrough and achievement.
The effort is part of Iran's quest to become a regional high-tech powerhouse in western Asia by 2025. Tehran has also launched an ambitious space program, while its controversial uranium enrichment has the West worried it is masking Iran's attempts to build a nuclear weapon.
"Royana is a successful scientific achievement. We are all proud of it. The sheep is the result of many years of efforts in stem cell research," Mohammad Hossein Nasr e Isfahani, head of the Royan Research Institute in Isfahan told The Associated Press on Monday.
Isfahani, an embryologist whose team oversaw Royana's birth and that of its cloned predecessor, said his institute conducted 30 successful stem cell transfers but that only two led to birth.
His team members say that out of 10 animal cloning pregnancies, only one or two can be expected to lead to birth.
In 1996, British scientists made international headlines with Dolly, the first cloned sheep, which lived six years.
With Royana, Iran became the first country in the Middle East that publicly announced it cloned a sheep. Last September, Turkey reported cloning its first animal, also a sheep.
But rapid progress in stem cell research and genetics have raised widespread debates about ethics and the boundaries of medicine.
Scientists say the cloning — a process that creates a genetically identical copy — of sheep and other animals could lead to advances in medical research, including using cloned animals to produce human antibodies against diseases.
Iran's cloning program has won backing from the Shiite Muslim religious leaders, who have issued decrees authorizing animal cloning but banning human reproductive cloning. A majority of Iran's nearly 70 million people are Shiite Muslims.
In contrast, Sunni Muslim religious leaders — including senior clerics in Saudi Arabia — have banned cloning altogether, even in animals.
At a grazing land outside Isfahan, Royana was serenely frolicking about with some 400 other sheep. The herd and its shepherd were apparently not bothered by the fact the pasture was just 20 kilometers (14 miles) away from the Isfahan uranium conversion plant, one of the two main bases of the country's enrichment program.
"Royana is very powerful. He fights well to protect his realm in the pasture," said shepherd Abdolmalek Nourzehi.
Isfahani, the embryologist, said his institute plans more experiments in genetics and stem cell research in the future — using animal cells.
"We are now in the early stages of cloning a cow," he said. "It is not important for us how many animals we clone, what is important is that we have achieved proficiency in cloning."
Isfahani said Iranian researchers would never try to clone a human being because it's banned. "It is neither ethical nor allowed under our laws," he said.
Isfahani's institute has also a key role in preserving stem cells from endangered species.
"There is a type of sheep believed to be on the brink of distinction here," Isfahani said. "We keep their stem cells here to produce their copies if necessary some day."