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Willy Wonka and the cloning factory

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on June 5th, 2008

In yet another publicity bid, BioArts International has announced its Golden Clone Giveaway contest. On June 16, the California start-up will award "a free clone of YOUR dog" to the person who submits the best 500-word essay on why their dog is "clone-worthy." BioArts is being run by cloning impresario Lou Hawthorne; disgraced cloning scientist Hwang Woo Suk is also involved.

Why does the Golden Clone contest call to mind the five Golden Tickets hidden by candy entrepreneur Willy Wonka among his billions of chocolate bars? You remember the story: Each lucky child who finds a ticket gets a free tour of Wonka's top-secret factory, along with a lifetime supply of special chocolate.

In the 1971 film based on Roald Dahl's children's novel, Gene Wilder plays Wonka as a creepy guy who looks on placidly as one child after another barely escapes a grisly fate, the just desserts, so to speak, of sneaking a taste of the wares. One girl is transformed into a giant blueberry; another child is shrunk to a few inches high; a third is rejected as a "bad egg" and sent down a garbage chute into the Egg Sorting Room. The factory workers - the Oompa-Loompas, who in the 2005 (post-Dolly?) remake of the movie were all played by the same actor, Roy Deep - break into song after each mishap.

Do similar outcomes await those partaking in the Golden Giveaway? Is Lou Hawthorne biotech's Willy Wonka? Stay tuned.

Dog Cloning and Intellectual Property

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky and Jesse Reynolds on June 5th, 2008

Lee Byeong-chun

In the minor flurry of stories last month about an on-line auction of dog cloning services, the issue of intellectual property was completely overlooked. That’s too bad, since the cloning business, like so many others, is best understood by following the money. 

What we learned last month: Lou Hawthorne, former CEO of a now-defunct pet cloning venture, and Hwang Woo Suk, the notoriously fraudulent cloning scientist, will head a new cloning company called BioArts International. Its business plan is to auction off five dog-cloning slots, with bids starting at $100,000 each. Good Morning America’s “broadcast exclusive” featuring Hawthorne and cute cloned puppies was a fluff piece (so to speak) worth a bundle in free publicity. 

Part of the missing context: Back in February, a Korean company called RNL Bio made a similar announcement. RNL Bio said it would clone a pit bull named "Booger" for an anonymous California woman; the work was to have been performed by a team at Seoul National University (SNU), where Hwang did his stem cell and cloning research. Heading the SNU cloning group was Lee Byeong-chun, a former key collaborator of Hwang’s and coauthor on the two cloning papers retracted by Science when it was discovered that their data had been fabricated. Hwang was fired by SNU, but Lee seems to have held on to his job. Both were indicted on embezzlement and ethics violation charges; their court cases appear to be ongoing.

Surprisingly, the California-based biotech company Geron now enters the picture. Back in 1999, Geron – better known for its repeated promises of imminent embryonic stem cell clinical trials – acquired exclusive licenses on an animal cloning patent held by the Scottish research institute where Dolly the sheep was "created." After fending off other claimants, in 2005 Geron helped form stART Licensing Inc. to manage its IP portfolio. (The other partner in stART Licensing is a holding company for several projects of John Sperling, the billionaire who has funded various cloning and human life extension projects including Hawthorne's previous cloning endeavor, Genetic Savings and Clone.)

Now the action picks up. In early March, RNL Bio announced that it had met with Booger's owner in Los Angeles, that Booger's cells had arrived safely in Korea, and that the birth of Booger II was anticipated. Another cloning race was on, with former partners Hwang and Lee – both still under indictment for various crimes – now rivals.

But just days before the Hwang-Hawthorne dog-cloning debut, Seoul National University announced it was pulling out of animal cloning. Why? Turns out that stART Licensing had sent SNU a cease-and-desist letter claiming that its commercial animal cloning efforts violated Geron's patent. Presumably, SNU decided either that it didn’t want to deal with a legal challenge, or that it didn’t need any additional cloning notoriety.

The Hawthorne-Hwang duo, on the other hand, has no such compunctions.

Cloning the Dead

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 3rd, 2008

Photo by Flickr's gin soak under a Creative Commons license.

Following up on an idea first floated in February, the UK health ministry is now proposing allowing scientists to try to create clonal embryos from the tissues of dead people, most of whom have not given their consent. Such an amendment to the current controversial bill to overhaul that nation's regulation of assisted reproduction and embryo research will be debated later this week.

Even setting aside the fact that this work would use cloning techniques, the proposal crosses a stark line. The need to obtain informed consent of research participants is generally considered paramount

Moreover, I am perplexed why UK scientists would push for this, particularly considering the potential backlash. Until now, the only purported work along these lines of which I am aware was claimed by Panos Zavos, the notorious publicity hound and reproductive cloning advocate. Is there a shortage of living persons - particular those with diseases that may be treated through stem cells - who are willing to provide tissues for cloning-based research? Do the scientists just want to avoid a potentially cumbersome consent process? Or do the banked tissues have certain characteristics which are difficult to replicate?

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

New York considers paying women for eggs for stem cell research

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 3rd, 2008

Advertisement in the Washington Express, recruiting egg providers for Advanced Cell Technology (2006)

After the passage of a bill over a year ago, the New York state stem cell research program has been quietly gearing up. Despite minimal press coverage, NYSTEM's $600 million makes it the second largest such endeavor, after California's $3 billion-plus-interest undertaking. This week, it released its draft strategic plan [PDF], which is open for comments.

One aspect that caught my eye, not surprisingly, concerns the sourcing of fresh human eggs for cloning-based stem cell research (a.k.a. somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT). Although NYSTEM's brief authorizing law is silent on this and related issues, such matters have been deliberated by NYSTEM's Ethics Committee. The draft strategic plan reveals the Committee and the program's governing board are considering offering compensation for women to provide eggs. (pages 26-27)

This would be an unfortunate deviation to the generally agreed-upon practice of only reimbursing for expenses. I am aware of no ethics committee that has endorsed payments,* and of only one research team which offered them (and that was before the consensus against compensation crystallized in 2004). The good news is that there is still time for input: NYSTEM has not explored the issue in depth, and the Ethics Committee will discuss the topic at its next meeting.

HT to The Niche.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

* The guidelines [PDF] of the International Society for Stem Cell Research do not explicitly endorse compensation for egg providers, but they do recognize that some areas may:

In locales where reimbursement for research participation is allowed, there must be a detailed and rigorous review to ensure that reimbursement of direct expenses or financial considerations of any kind do not constitute an undue inducement.

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