Despite its whimsical name, Genetic Savings & Clone Inc. has been working for more than four years on a cat-cloning process, and this month it delivered its first cloned-to-order specimen to a Texas woman for $50,000.
The eight-week old, genetic duplicate of the customer's beloved but deceased Nicky -- and the first known custom pet clone -- was an immediate hit.
"He is identical. I have not been able to see one difference," said the new owner, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Julie.
The founder of the cloning company, Arizona billionaire John Sperling, funded the research at Texas A&M; University that led to the cloning of the first cat in 2001, CC, or Carbon Copy.
The company, based in Sausalito, Calif., is employing a technology known as chromatin transfer, used for cloning cattle.
Company spokesman Ben Carlson said four other people have cats on order, at $50,000 each. He said all the clones are expected to be ready by spring.
The announcement of Little Nicky sparked criticism from some animal protection groups, who saw the event as opening the door to a new realm of problems.
"There are million of cats being killed in shelters every year," said Michael Mountain, president of Best Friends Animal Society. "There is no shortage of cats, so why do they have to do this?"
He described the cloning of animals -- still a complex and tricky procedure that can result in deformities and genetic abnormalities -- as an inhumane game of trial and error. "You're dealing with a Dr. Frankenstein situation," Mountain said.
But Lou Hawthorne, chief executive of Genetic Savings & Clone, said there was no denying the intense desire of some pet owners to bring back their deceased companions. "We're not curing cancer, but we believe we are adding to the sum of joy in the world," Hawthorne said.
Dr. Michael Grodin, a psychiatrist and director of medical ethics at Boston University School of Medicine and Public Health, said he saw no ethical problem with the procedure.
"Many people have a better and stronger and more humane relationship with their pets than they do with other human beings," he said. "Who am I to say that somebody shouldn't clone their cat?"
Julie said she began investigating a clone of her Maine coon cat when she read about the birth of CC, almost two years before Nicky's death in September 2003 at age 17. When Nicky died, she immediately sent a genetic sample to Genetic Savings & Clone. Little Nicky was born Oct. 17.
"When Little Nicky yawned, I even saw two spots inside his mouth -- just like Nicky had," Julie said. "Little Nicky loves water, like Nicky did, and he's already jumped into the bathtub like Nicky used to do."
Little Nicky is the fourth cat the company has cloned. The first three were born earlier this year and have been displayed at cat shows.
Ever since scientists cloned the first mammal -- Dolly the sheep in 1996 -- they have repeated the feat with a barnyard of creatures, including mice, pigs, horses and bulls.
Sperling, founder of the for-profit, adult-education University of Phoenix, wanted to clone a friend's pet dog, Missy. In 1998, he funded researchers at Texas A&M;, but discouraged by their slow progress, he started Genetic Savings & Clone in 2000 to provide additional research capability.
The cloning process still has its pitfalls. Hawthorne said that roughly a third of the clones do not survive past 60 days. As with in vitro fertilization for humans, it may take many tries to achieve a pregnancy.
Hawthorne said the $50,000 price will eventually fall. In the meantime, several hundred people have paid between $295 and $1,395 for the company to store genetic material from their pet dogs and cats to create clones if the procedure becomes more affordable.
The next frontier is cloning a dog -- which is more difficult and expensive. But Hawthorne said the company expects that dog owners will be willing to spend more on cloning their pets when it's feasible -- and the starting price will be $100,000.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.