Imagine a world where taxidermy is obsolete - a world where the final trip down to the vet doesn't have to be the final goodbye. Imagine a world where your pet can be brought back to life.
Next month an American company is offering those with big enough wallets just that. A decade after Dolly the Sheep became the world's first animal to be successfully cloned from a single cell, BioArts International, a Californian biotech company with a long history of forays into the pet cloning industry, is planning an online auction to clone five dogs.
The dogs will become the first canines to be cloned exclusively for commercial sale and represent one of the boldest attempts yet to kick start a global pet cloning industry that might one day be used by millions of people to make copies of their own dogs.
Bidding in “Best Friends Again” is expected to start at $100,000 and is aimed at owners with enough cash to fund what is at the moment an extremely complicated and costly scientific process. To deter time wasters, the regulations insist that people provide evidence of cash or assets of at least $250,000 before being allowed to bid. And because of international interest, the auction, which is scheduled to begin on 18 June, will be staggered in order to reach potential customers living in different time zones, including Britain.
According to BioArts the actual cloning process will take anything from three to 12 months from start to finish and can be done on any dog species, whether it's a daschund or a Great Dane, a retriever or a Rottweiler.
This, however, is not a Lazarus cure for deceased pets. Any cloned dog will be a genetic copy of its predecessor; but while it will look the same as its forebear, it will not necessarily behave identically. BioArts nonetheless is hoping to tap into the demand from distraught pets owners who are looking for the next best thing.
The team of scientists working for BioArts can create clones either from live dogs or deceased ones, as long as tissue samples were taken from the animal before it died - or within the first five days after death - and then frozen in liquid nitrogen. In recent years a number of American companies have been offering “gene banking” facilities for just such a cloning opportunity, giving people the chance to store their pet's genetic details for a day when pet cloning is affordable.
For BioArts, a company that sprang out of the ashes of Genetic Savings & Clone - a company that tried to exploit the commercial possibilities of cloning pet cats before folding in 2006 - the auction is something of a coup within a highly competitive and controversial industry. After an intense round of bidding from rival biotech firms, it was BioArts that managed to secure the licence for the same patents that produced Dolly the Sheep, cloned by British scientists in 1996.
But the project is also something of a personal coup for one man in particular: an octogenarian billionaire philanthropist who is renowned for supporting controversial initiatives and in the past 10 years has made it his life’s mission to clone his pet dog.
Until scientists announced the birth of Dolly in February 1997, John Sperling was primarily known for being one of Arizona's richest businessmen, a slightly eccentric, left-leaning tycoon and the founder of the world's largest private university, the University of Phoenix. But the creation of Dolly inspired him to become one of the prime movers and shakers within the pet cloning industry.
Utterly devoted to his mongrel dog Missy, a three-quarters Border collie and a quarter Siberian husky mix, the 87-year-old set about pouring millions of his own money into research that could one day help reunite owners with their deceased pets.
He teamed up with PR guru and long time friend Lou Hawthorne, who is now the chief executive of BioArts and previously of the cat cloning company GSC.
In 2002 the pair had their first breakthrough. Scientists at A&M Texas University, using funds predominantly provided by Mr Sperling, produced the world's first cloned pet, a brown and white tabby cat called “CC”, named after the abbreviation for carbon copy. Using the same technology, GSC began to delve into the world of commercial cloning and went on to produce four more kittens, two of which were sold to the public. Because of the controversial nature of cloning the identities of the buyers were kept secret. But we know that one of the cats, known as Little Nicky, was bought for $50,000 by a Texan woman who was inconsolable at the loss of her beloved pet cat of 17 years in what is thought to be the first known example of a bereaved pet owner buying a genetic copy of a deceased animal.
But ultimately as a commercial experiment GSC failed. After charging owners up to $50,000 per feline the company announced in 2006 that it would have to cease operations, a decision which Mr Hawthorne later admitted led to a number of “pricey refunds”.
“There were so many moving parts and dynamics, we really bit off more than we could chew,” he said last week. But Mr Hawthorne believes this time things will be different, particularly because of the strong emotional pull dogs have on their owners. “The average dog owner has a different relationship with his dog than the average cat owner,” he said. “The level of intensity on the dog side just dwarfed what we saw on the cat side.”
But getting to a stage where scientists could clone a dog has been a much more testing and controversial processes. Despite his scientists' successes with cats, Mr Sperling appeared no closer to making a copy of Missy who died in 2002 at the age of 15.
Cloning dogs was proving elusive because canine egg cells are particularly difficult to mature in the lab. Then in August 2005 a team of specialists from South Korea announced the birth of Snuppy, a brown and black Afghan hound and the world's first cloned dog. The team leader of that breakthrough was geneticist Hwang Woo-Suk, a man once regarded as one of the world's most successful geneticists after claiming to have successfully cloned a pig in 1999, a cow in 2002 and, most controversially, the first human embryo in 2004.
But just months after Snuppy's birth, Dr Hwang's reputation and his status as a Korean national hero lay in tatters after it emerged much of his work on human cloning had been fabricated. Two landmark pieces of research into cloning human stem cells had been faked, while his team had used eggs from its own female researchers in contravention of acceptable lab practices.
The same Dr Hwang is now one of the key scientists working with BioArts, which has teamed up with the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation to carry out most of the actual cloning procedures. His new role will no doubt cast some suspicion on Best Friends Again from within the wider scientific community, many of whom are already sceptical of the commercialisation of cloning in the first place. But BioArts stresses that despite the controversial status of Dr Hwang's human embryology work, his dog-cloning techniques have been independently verified and are second to none.
Last year, Mr Sperling's money finally paid off. Through gene banking techniques, Dr Hwang's team were able to create three clones out of tissue samples taken from Missy before she died. Mira, was born in December and two others, Chin-Gu and Sarang were born this year.
But animal rights groups in the United States have found other reasons to find BioArts work controversial. Two of the largest groups, the Humane Society of the United States and Peta, have both come out against cloning arguing that there are plenty of abandoned animals that need homes and that the cloning process can often be cruel to the surrogate mother.
“Given the current pet overpopulation problem, which costs millions of animals their lives and millions in public tax dollars each year, the cloning of pets has no social value and in fact may lead to increased animal suffering,” said a spokesperson from the Humane Society. “For those looking to replace a lost pet, cloning will not create an animal identical to the one who is gone. Cloning can only replicate the pet's genetics, which influence but do not determine his physical attributes or personality.”
Patricia Bernie, meanwhile, who runs the Wythall Animal Sanctuary near Birmingham, doubts that British pet owners will be attracted to the idea of cloning their pets. “It's certainly true that people who have lost their pets often say things like “Oh, I wish so-and-so was back with me” or “If only I could see him one more time.” But I think the average British pet owner would find the idea of cloning their pet as slightly creepy. Besides, we don't need artificially made pets, there are not enough good homes for the animals that are born naturally.”