An American woman has become the first owner of a commercially cloned pet. Julie, an airline worker from Dallas, paid $50,000 to a Californian company to clone her pet cat Nicky, who died last year aged 17. Little Nicky, as the new kitten has been named, was born last October.
The first time a cloned cat was announced in February 2002. Then, scientists from the Texas A&M University reported their cloning success when 'Cc' (short for carbon copy) was born, after they used the same nuclear transfer process used to create Dolly the sheep. However, Cc looked nothing like her 'parent' cat, Rainbow, although tests confirmed that they did both share the same genetic make-up. While the colours in her coat suggested Cc was a clone, her pattern differed from Rainbow's - this is because the patterns that cats develop on their coats are not wholly genetically determined, but depend on other factors during early development.
Cc was the only kitten to be produced from 87 embryos originally created, a figure comparable to the success rates of cloning in other animals. Cloning pets would not be viable unless the technique could be improved. Little Nicky was produced by the company Genetic Savings and Clone, co-established by John Sperling, an Arizona billionaire who started the 'Missyplicity' project at the Texas A&M University in the 1990s, in the hope of cloning his dog Missy. The cat cloning programme is called 'Nine Lives Extravaganza' and the company says it already has five other clients, and many more people interested. It also plans to unveil the first cloned dog in the spring.
When Nicky died, Julie sent tissue samples to the company, which kept them in culture. The company buys ovaries from spayed animals from veterinary clinics, which would otherwise be discarded, and extracts and matures the eggs from within them. Then, the genetic material of the animal to be cloned is combined with the eggs and the resulting embryo is implanted into a surrogate mother. Julie, who has withheld her last name for fear of harassment, says the new kitten is exactly the same as Nicky: 'he is identical. His personality is the same', she said. However, many scientists and animal welfare groups have criticised the use of the technology, calling it 'frivolous' and 'unsound'. Cloned animals are known to have more health and developmental problems than animals born normally. David Mangus, a biomedical ethicist from Stanford University, said 'for $50,000, she could have provided homes for a lot of strays'.