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.