When Bonnie Tam, a Toronto-based professional, saw her beloved Samoyed dog Menley growing old, she knew the eventual loss would be unbearable. When Menley turned 12, she started exploring the idea of cloning and eventually found Texas-based Viagen Pets. “I reached out to them and purchased the genetic preservation kit in 2017 as an ‘insurance policy’,” she told indianexpress.com via email.
After Menley’s death at 16, Tam initiated the cloning process. Two months later, a new puppy was born using the same DNA material as Mentley. She named the new puppy “Maverick”, and while he is not the same dog as Mentley, Tam believes he has many of Mentley’s qualities. ViaGen Pets–the company that helped Tam get Menley back in a sense– will clone pets from a tissue sample obtained using a simple skin biopsy. Its labs are based in Austin, Texas. The cloning process for dogs costs $50,000 on average, which is not affordable by any standard. The company also offers customers the option to send the tissue samples to the company for culturing and storage. This process costs less than $2,000.
But cost-aside, initiating the cloning process challenges. For one, tissue sample collection ideally requires a skin biopsy on the animal while it is alive. This is not always possible, as many veterinarians object to the biopsy. “It is against their code of ethics, since it is not beneficial to the pet. For example, veterinarians in the United Kingdom refuse to collect samples while the animal is still alive,” Melain Rodriguez, client service manager at ViaGen Pets, told indianexpress.com over a video call.
The alternative is that the customer must collect the sample immediately after the animal’s death. The sample then needs to be sent to the company’s lab. More importantly, the cold chain must be maintained during transportation, so that the collected cells remain alive.
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“It sometimes takes between three and four days for us to get international samples, and we want the cells to be alive when they reach our lab. This is why we recommend clients collect the samples when their pets are still alive,” Rodriguez explained further. The samples once received are placed in a culture where they grow till there are a few million cells. This process typically takes two to three weeks.
After this, they are placed in a cryoprotectant and frozen. When the pet parent decides to clone the animal, the frozen cells are used to create an embryo. An egg is taken from a donor animal, and its nucleus is removed and replaced with one of the millions of cultured cells from the sample. After this, the embryo is allowed to grow in a dish for a while before it is transferred to the surrogate mother. The process is similar to in-vitro fertilisation.
In the case of dogs, ViaGen takes special consideration to ensure that the surrogate mother is a breed similar to the donor. The surrogate eventually gives birth to the ‘clone’ pet. But Viagen emphasises that clients need to understand that the ‘clone’ is not the same as the pet that died.
“When speaking to clients, we always ensure they know what they are getting into. We tell them that this is not the reincarnation of your pet. We know there is a genetic component to personality, but there is an environmental component to it as well. So the cloned animal may behave completely differently,” said Rodriguez.