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Go Fetch a Clone

Bernann McKinney couldn't wait to see her dog again.

Understanding why is easy: Booger was a pit bull she rescued from the street. Two months later, when McKinney was attacked by another dog, Booger rescued her, charging out of the house, jumping on the larger dog and diverting his attention long enough so that McKinney, who all but lost one arm in the attack and had the other damaged, could escape, steering her pickup truck with her elbows to the home of a neighbor.

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After her fingers and arms were repaired - at least cosmetically - in a series of 12 surgeries, Booger became McKinney's service dog. He helped her tug off her shoes and socks. He brought her soda from the refrigerator. He got her clothes out of the dryer. And he kept her going emotionally, as well.

Given all that, why she'd want him back is obvious. How she's getting him back is slightly more complex: Booger died two years ago.

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This week in Seoul, South Korea, though, McKinney's far-fetched dream is to come somewhere in the vicinity of true when she meets the puppies, all named Booger, created by the cloning of McKinney's original dog. They are the first dogs to be cloned for a private individual, and the first whose births are unaffiliated with scientific research, government requests or corporate interests.

Three years after the first dog was cloned in the name of science - an Afghan named Snuppy, created at Seoul National University - the marketing of cloned pets to the general public, once relegated to science fiction, has become a reality.

"We are ready to receive cloning orders," said Jin Han Hong, director of strategic planning for RNL BioStar, a Seoul biotech company that, working with the Seoul National University research team, agreed to clone McKinney's dog for $150,000.

RNL BioStar, which has cloned other dogs for government agencies, is one of two companies making dog cloning available to the general public.

A second company, U.S.-based BioArts International, auctioned off five dog clonings online last month, with each slot drawing bids of $140,000 or more, and it plans to carry out a free cloning for the winner of a clone-my-dog essay contest - former Nova Scotia police officer James Symington, who says his search and rescue dog, Trakr, helped find the last survivor in the rubble of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11.

Lou Hawthorne, chief executive officer of BioArts, says he hopes to produce the clone or clones of Symington's aging German shepherd by the end of the year.

BioArts is working with Hwang Woo-suk, a former Seoul National University scientist who, after helping lead the effort to create the first cloned dog in the world, was fired for falsifying data related to his experiments with cloning human embryos. He went on to establish his own biotech foundation in South Korea, and this year partnered with BioArts to produce cloned dogs commercially.

The two companies both maintain they have the sole right to clone dogs worldwide, have accused each other of infringing on cloning patents and licenses, and have threatened to take legal action against one another.

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Hawthorne also disagrees with RNL's assertion that the Booger clones would be the world's first "commercially cloned" dogs. He has three clones of his mother's dog, Missy, all created by Hwang at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, where the stem-cell scientist took his research after being fired from the university.

"The first commercial dog clone has been delivered. It's sitting right here at my feet," Hawthorne said in a telephone interview. The first of the Missy clones was born late last year; two more were born in February.

He says he considers the Missy clones the first commercial clonings - as opposed to a business venture - because they were produced before he went into partnership with Hwang, and because he paid for them with family money.

Hawthorne called RNL's quest to clone Booger "a publicity stunt." RNL, meanwhile, points out that Hawthorne's company "doesn't have a cloning facility, and his subcontractor is led by a discredited scientist."

"Five cloning auctions and a cloning giveaway?" Jin, the RNL spokesman, asked. "Who is performing the publicity stunt?"

'Help me, Booger'

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Bernann McKinney of California was living alone on a remote farm when, driving through town one day, she found Booger by the side of the road.

A longtime animal rescuer, she knew that the dog, being a pit bull type, would likely be euthanized if she brought him to a shelter.

"So I said, 'Get in the car, buddy, you're going home.' We forged a fast friendship," McKinney said. "Little did I know that 30 days later this dog was going to save my life."

At the suggestion of a relative who expressed concerns about a single woman living alone in an isolated area, McKinney agreed to take on another dog, as well, a large mixed breed, trained as a guard dog and named Tuff Guy, or Tuffy for short.

"He was a wonderful dog, but he got stung by a bee," McKinney said. Because of a mistake made in the prescription, the dog was given Prednisone in an amount 10 times the prescribed dose.

"I don't really fault the dog. It happened because of the overdose," she said.

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McKinney said Tuffy attacked her outside the farmhouse, shredding her left arm up to the elbow, tearing into one of her legs, and nearly ripping the fingers off her right hand. He was chewing into her midsection when she said she called out, "Help me, God. Help me, Jesus. Help me, Booger."

Booger, about a third of the other dog's size, bounded from the house and jumped on him, allowing McKinney to stumble to her pickup truck and get a neighbor to drive her to the local clinic.

McKinney, a one-time beauty queen, was transported from there by ambulance to a hospital in the closest city, where, she said, "my arms and hands were reattached and reconstructed into something that looked semi-human."

At first, Booger, also injured in the fight, and McKinney recovered together. Then, as McKinney spent months confined to bed and a wheelchair, Booger became her service dog.

She said he would bring her clothes from the dryer and learned to distinguish between towels, shirts and jeans. He would bring her soda from the refrigerator and use his mouth to help her turn doorknobs. When she fell, he would back into her so that she could grab on to his harness and help herself get up.

Once she was mobile, she and Booger worked as a therapy dog team, going to homes for the elderly and hospitals.

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"Everywhere Booger went, he'd spread his special brand of magic," McKinney said.

When Booger was diagnosed with cancer, shortly after the successful cloning of Snuppy had been publicized, McKinney began looking for someone to clone him.

She contacted Genetic Savings & Clone, which is now defunct, but at the time was owned by BioArts CEO Hawthorne, who formed the gene bank in 2000 to allow pet owners to store their animal's tissue, in hopes that it could someday be used to clone their pets.

GS&C;, along with billionaire adult education mogul John Sperling, funded research, about $20 million worth, into dog cloning at Texas A&M; University. While several cats were cloned by GS&C;, it was never successful in cloning a dog.

In 2006, Hawthorne notified his more than 1,000 clients, McKinney among them, that GS&C; was shutting down, and that for a fee their pets' tissue could be sent to another facility. Booger's tissue samples were then sent to Sioux City, Iowa, for storage.

McKinney got on the Internet in search of someone else to clone her dog, and ended up corresponding with Seoul National University scientist Lee Byeong-cheon, another member of the team that cloned Snuppy.

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Lee, who is associated with RNL Bio, agreed to clone Booger, and the Korean company sent representatives to the U.S. to transport Booger's tissue back to Seoul.

The fee for Booger's cloning is $150,000, but RNL has agreed to cut it by more than half in exchange for McKinney's cooperation in its effort to publicize the birth of the "first commercially cloned" pups.

Since Snuppy

Since Snuppy, a handful of other dogs have been cloned, but other than Hawthorne's Missy, none has been a family pet.

Hwang, the fired scientist, produced three Missy clones, with three more on the way. He also says he has produced 17 clones of Tibetan Mastiffs, a rare Chinese breed, for the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

At Seoul National University, Lee's team has gone on to clone a wolf, and in 2006, it created three clones from the cloned dog Snuppy. In 2006, the RNL team produced seven clones of Toppie, a drug-sniffing dog, and in 2007, four clones of a famous cancer-sniffing dog from Japan named Marine.

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Both companies claim they hold the exclusive rights to clone dogs worldwide.

While early dog-cloning research was justified by scientists on the grounds it would lead to medical advances that could benefit humans, critics of cloning say that doesn't appear to have been the case.

Instead, critics say, with little oversight, especially when research is privately funded, science marches on - and into places it might not ought to be treading.

"When Koreans announced they could make transgenic cats that would glow under fluorescent light, their public rationale was that it was for scientific purposes," said Autumn Fiester, director of graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics. "I would like to see what the first use is of those glowing cats.

"In a world where there is no biotechnology agenda decided by federal strategy or citizens, I find it hard to believe that the only motives are scientific progress and medical research. ... Let's not pretend it's noble and beneficial to humanity."

McKinney's motivation appears simpler: "I want my friend back again," she said.

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She remembers watching earlier this year as the tissue of Booger was carried aboard a Korean Air jet in a "biobox." She watched until the plane disappeared from view.

This week, McKinney heads to Korea, not to bring the dogs home - it will be months before they are ready for that - but to see the laboratory-conceived descendants of the dog that saved her life, then supported her during her recovery.

"Booger taught me I could do anything I could do before the accident," she said. "I just had to figure out a different way to do it."


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