Beijing biotech lab Sinogene say they have successfully cloned a genetically-modified dog for medical research, and now plan to use the same technology to create "superdogs" for Chinese police.
The beagle puppy named Longlong, born in May, is a clone of a gene-edited beagle called Apple.
“These two dogs are 99.9 per cent the same. We've observed their personality and appearance, even their facial expressions are identical. As you can see they're both very naughty and active. Even the way they walk, how they move around,” says Mi Jidong, Sinogene General Manager.
Two other clone puppies Nuonuo and Qiqi followed Longlong in June. All were born from surrogate mothers in the lab.
Apple, the original beagle, was genetically modified last year using a gene-editing tool known as ‘CRISPR/Cas9.’
It’s been more than 20 years since the first mammal, a sheep named Dolly, was cloned in 1996. Since then other animals, including horses and pigs, have since been cloned. The first dog, however, was only duplicated in 2005.
“Dogs are extremely difficult to work with. Some cells are very complex and difficult to clone. Also it’s extremely hard for a dog embryo to survive in lab conditions, it’s very vulnerable,” explains Mr Mi.
Another reason the cloning of dogs may be more difficult is that the animal is more genetically similar to humans than other animals. Approximately 400 out of 900 genetic illnesses in dogs are similar to human diseases.
It’s for this reason that Apple, Longlong and his fellow-clones will be used primarily for medical research.
“It's the first step in our future development to delve further into modifying dogs for medical research,” says Mr Mi.
Apple was gene-edited to have “several times” higher levels of blood lipid – a trait associated with high cholesterol. Sinogene say they’re cooperating with other labs in China to study gene-based diseases including heart disease and diabetes and develop medicines.
But that’s not the only focus of the lab. Sinogene will also be using the same gene-editing and cloning technique to create ‘super dogs’ for the police force as early as next year.
“We’re also exploring how we can use genetic modification and cloning to improve the specific qualities of different working dogs. For example to improve their stamina, their intelligence to make it easier to train them And also give them a better sense of smell,” says Mr Mi.
China currently imports many of its police, search and rescue dogs. Mr Mi believes Sinogene’s work could save money and improve the quality of China’s police dog pack.
But the work has been condemned as cruel by animal welfare groups operating in China.
“Cloning has many problems. Large numbers of animals are used as donors and surrogates. But the success rate is very small. So it’s a huge waste of animal life,” says Peter Li, China Policy specialist at Humane Society International, and Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown.
He says money would be better spent caring for China’s millions of unwanted dogs.
“I think this ‘super dog’ work is suspect. Dogs are already very intelligent. We know that cloned dogs have health issues, they don’t live long. It is a huge waste of public resources to clone dogs for the police force,” says Professor Li.
Animal welfare activist and founder of China’s first international animal hospital in Beijing, Mary Peng, says she doesn’t feel animal medical testing should stop but says labs need to be better regulated. “Cloning is really just another form of breeding,” says Ms Peng. “But I share concerns of how the animals are treated.”
She says though China has progressed rapidly in recent years when it comes to the treatment and general attitude towards animals, protective laws lag behind international standards.
“China is having the world’s biggest love affair with their pets in the history of the world,” she says, “but this is all very new, less than 25 years old maybe.”
“And this experimentation, medical research etc, are also really new industries for China,” Ms Peng says. “And I’m not sure that the laws and regulations about how the animals are treated while they’re in these labs have been fully developed.”
But Professor Li says the lab’s work also raises larger ethical questions. “If we see cloned animals as a testing object, I wonder how soon this work will be applied to humans. If we have this level of audacity, this level of recklessness as a standard, then many other test labs will do things that should be stopped.”
Retired Tsinghua University artificial intelligence and ethics expert Professor Zhao Nanyuan dismisses the criticism of animal rights groups as foreign and irrelevant, saying China’s scientific progress outweighs the cost.
“To see human-animal relations as an ethical question is a concept borrowed from Western religion. In Chinese ethics we don’t have this.”
He says many in China, like him, will focus on the long-term benefit, rather than the individual treatment of an animal or embryo.
“In China we have less problems developing genetically modified technology. I’m pretty sure other countries will be behind China when it comes to human genetic research because of their concerns."