South Korea's renowned geneticist Hwang Woo-suk has produced another breakthrough. His latest triumph walks on four legs and wags its tail, but Dr. Hwang and his colleagues insist their aim is to create medical cures, not cuddly pets.
On Wednesday, reporters in Seoul met "Snuppy," a four-month-old Afghan hound whose creators say is an exact genetic copy of another dog about three years older.
The term "creators" is used advisedly, because Snuppy is a clone. His name is short for Seoul National University puppy, a reference to the academic home of South Korean Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, one of the world's leading geneticists.
Snuppy refused to comment Wednesday despite reporters' best attempts to elicit a bark. Nevertheless, despite the recent cloning of sheep, cats, pigs and other animal species, Snuppy is the first dog ever cloned successfully.
Dr. Hwang says his team wanted to develop "human disease models" by cloning an animal that is biologically similar to human beings. He says he chose to clone a dog because it is second only to a monkey in its biological similarity to humans, and because dogs have diseases that are similar to human diseases.
The achievement was first reported in the British scientific journal Nature.
Last year, Dr. Hwang gained global fame when he successfully extracted stem cells, the basic building blocks of the body, from cloned human embryos. The achievement was hailed as a first step in creating genetically tailored transplant organs, as well as treatments for cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases.
It is difficult to overstate Dr. Hwang's status in South Korea. The media and scientific community treat him like a rock star, the government backs him with millions of dollars in funding, and the flagship airline, Korean Air, has promised him free top-class flights for the next 10 years.
But critics say nationalistic pride and Dr. Hwang's celebrity status tend to mask an ethical debate that the nation should be pursuing. The Catholic Church has condemned his research, saying an embryo is a living human being that should not be treated as expendable. President Bush, an ardent Christian, has limited the use of government funds for embryonic stem cell research in the United States.
However, Dr. Hwang, a Buddhist, draws a line between cloning embryos to extract therapeutic stem cells and doing so for human reproduction.
He says 1,095 fertilized eggs were implanted in 123 surrogate dogs in the effort to obtain Snuppy. Three became pregnant, two were born, and one of those died of pneumonia. Dr. Gerald Schatten, a close associate, says those high loss rates reinforce the team's opposition to cloning human beings.
"Because this again shows that reproductive cloning is unsafe and inefficient, we call for a worldwide ban on human reproductive cloning, which is also unethical," said Mr. Schatten.
Dr. Hwang hints that cloning a monkey may be his next move. However, he cautions that that step, along with possible human therapies, will not be seen for some time.