Trakr: What If Lassie Was Cloned?

German ShepherdIt might as well have been a made-for-TV Disney movie.

A German Shepherd search-and-rescue dog named Trakr pulls the last 9/11 survivor, Genelle Guzman-McMillan, out of the rubble surrounding Ground Zero on Sept. 12, 2001. For his heroic efforts, Trakr is presented with an extraordinary service to humanity award by Dr. Jane Goodall – the United Nations Messenger of Peace – and is featured in books and magazines dedicated to 9/11 heroes including Dog World and In the Line of Duty.

Over the years, Trakr ends up suffering neurological symptoms similar to those suffered by human 9/11 rescue workers. Paralyzed on his hind end for the last two years of his life, Trakr relies on owner and former Canadian police officer James Symington and his wife to carry him.

Symington decides to enter an essay on Trakr into the Golden Clone Giveaway contest held by BioArts International to find the “most clone-worthy dog.” Trakr wins hands down.

Fade to present day: Trakr has now passed on — but he has left behind his DNA. Symington sits on the lawn of his Los Angeles home holding German Shepherd puppies Trustt, Solace, Valor, Prodigy and Deja Vu. They’re not just any German Shepherds — all four puppies are reproductive clones of Trakr.

“Trakr was so much a part of my life, and, you know, he was more than just my partner,” Symington says to CBS News. “He was my best friend and my lifelong companion. Seeing and having his legacy live on in these puppies is a tremendous gift.”

The cloning took place at Sooam Biotech Research Foundation of South Korea. None other than Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk, the controversial veterinarian researcher who produced the world’s first canine cloning in 2005, led the procedure.

While Dr. Woo-Suk’s canine cloning procedures have been used with apparent success for almost four years, his reputation was sullied in 2006 when Nature announced that his 2004 claim that he cloned a human embryo was fake, and that the “Korean scientist did not clone a human embryo but did clone a dog.”

German Shepherd puppiesAccording to CBS News, the goal with Trackr was to create a single cloned dog. Dr. Woo-Suk’s team replaced the genes in eggs from donor dogs with genes harvested from the hero dog. After stimulation, they grew into embryos and were then placed in surrogate mothers. Five genetically identical puppies resulted from surrogate pregnancies. The first of the pups was born on Dec. 8, 2008 and the last arrived April 4, 2009.

Reproductive cloning like this is used to produce the genetic twin of another organism — an animal that has the same nuclear DNA as another currently or previously existing animal. Dolly, the “celebrity sheep,” was created in 1996 by reproductive cloning technology and became the first mammal to be cloned from a non-sex adult somatic cell (a sheep’s udder).

To create a reproductive clone, DNA from the nucleus of an adult donor cell is inserted into an egg without a nucleus. The reconstructed egg containing the DNA from a donor cell is chemically treated or stimulated electrically to induce cell division. Once the cloned embryo reaches a suitable stage, it is transferred to the uterus of a female host where it continues to develop until birth.

Hundreds of cloned animals exist today, but the number of different species is limited. Attempts at cloning certain species have been unsuccessful. Some species — monkeys for example — may be more resistant to somatic cell nuclear transfer than others.

Attempts at cloning certain species have been unsuccessful. Some species may be more resistant to somatic cell nuclear transfer than others.

A second type of cloning, recombinant DNA cloning, involves the transfer of a DNA fragment from one organism to a self-replicating genetic element such as a bacterial plasmid. The DNA can then be propagated in a foreign host cell. The point is to generate multiple copies of the same gene and is used by the Human Genome Project researchers to copy genes and other pieces of chromosomes.

And then there’s therapeutic cloning. This involves the use of human embryos in research. The goal is to harvest stem cells for use in medical research and disease therapies. This, of course, is the most controversial type of cloning procedure since the extraction process destroys the embryo. Researchers hope that embryonic stem cells can be used to serve as replacement cells to treat heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and other diseases.

In addition to the Golden Clone Giveaway that resulted in Trakr’s cloned legacy, Lou Hawthorne of BioArts International offered five other pet owners a chance to clone their canine companions — for a price. Aspiring clone owners participated in a series of online auctions, and the bidding started at $100,000.

“If you love golden retrievers, you can go to a conventional breeder and get a very similar set of genetics again,” says Hawthorne. “But if you have a spayed or neutered mixed-breed animal, there’s no other way to get that same configuration of genetics. You can guess and breed what you think to be the source breed, but you’ll never get the same configuration.”

German ShepherdThe Humane Society of the United States and the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS) denounced the commercial cloning of pets, publishing a report entitled “Buyer Beware: Pet Cloning is NOT for Pet Lovers.” The report characterizes pet cloning as cruel, manipulative, and pointless, “It is time for would-be pet cloners to be revealed for what they are – hucksters who have been involved in questionable activities, including preying upon people who have developed a strong bond with a beloved pet,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society.

While pet cloning is largely unregulated, fifteen states have laws pertaining to human cloning. The California legislature was the first to address the issue. They banned reproductive cloning, or cloning to initiate a pregnancy, in 1997. Since then, twelve other states have enacted measures to prohibit reproductive cloning. Arizona and Missouri have measures that address the use of public funds for cloning, and Maryland prohibits the use of state stem cell research funds for reproductive cloning and (depending upon how the law is interpreted) possibly therapeutic cloning.

Right now, only the very rich can afford pet cloning. Greg Beato, in a 2008 Reason magazine article, imagines a tongue-in-cheek future where pet cloning has become mainstream, and, “every pet owner is so perfectly matched to his four-legged companion he can’t stop exclaiming how much he loves it, how it’s the bestestwestest puppy ever, yes it is, yes it is, and does it want another Milk Bone?”

Certainly cloning does present opportunities for this type of self indulgence. But perhaps we can also imagine a future where the genetic stuff of Trakr continues to serve humanity and win awards – pulling victims from the rubble and debris of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other disasters, just like Lassie. Symington says that if his cloned German Shepherd pups prove to have Trakr’s abilities, he will train them to be search-and-rescue dogs.

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