Want To Have Your Pet Living Forever? Cloning Might Be The Way – An Interview With Blake Russell, President Of ViaGen

With Dolly the Sheep, a new era began in 1996, in a manner of speaking. This was the clone that became famous all over the world. Today, a company in Texas, ViaGen, clones pets, horses, and livestock. We have had the opportunity to interview ViaGen’s president, Blake Russell.

Mr. Russell, first of all please tell us what inspired you to enter the field of animal cloning. 

Immediately following the successful cloning of Dolly the Sheep at Roslin University, I joined a global team of animal scientists to consider how this advanced reproductive technology could positively impact the world of animal breeding. Cloning technology opened a number of new opportunites to disseminate elite genetics for a number of species in a bio-secure manner. Joining ViaGen and developing these opportunities full time followed. I have been working with ViaGen now for 13 years, and we have successfully utilized cloning technology to aid animal breeders around the world. 

In layperson’s terms so our readers can understand, would you please describe how cloning is achieved? 

Cloning is an advanced reproductive technology that allows for the production of a genetic twin. Each somatic cell in the donor has a full set of DNA, and that DNA can be utilized to produce a new, healthy animal with the same genetics. It begins with a small tissue sample from the donor. We can produce a cell line with millions of cells that can be cryo-preserved for extended periods of time. Each cell within this cell line can be used in the cloning process to produce an embryo, using an unfertilized egg and replacing the existing genetic information in the egg with the DNA from the donor cell. Once an embryo is produced, then it is transferred into a recipient female of the same species, and she gestates and gives birth to the cloned animal. The result is an identical twin separated in time.

What is the survival rate of cloned animals?

Cloned animals have been demonstrated in numerous studies to live normal, healthy lives. These studies have been done by multiple government agencies, universities, etc.   The cloned animals have the same genetic strengths and weaknesses of the donor whose DNA was used to produce the cloned animal.

What is the usual cost involved, just a ballpark number, in cloning animals?

Each species is different as the reproduction process is different for each species. Some species are litter-producing species, so more than one cloned animal can be produced. Other species only gestate one individual embryo at a time. The most expensive cloned animals that we produce are cloned foals (equine) and they are $85,000 for a veterinary-inspected, healthy foal with a 100% money back guarantee of health and DNA match.

Cloning pets, for those who can afford it, is something the average person can understand. Please tell us especially about the advantages of cloning equine animals and livestock and of course about cloning pets, too.  

Each client may have a unique reason for utilizing this technology. In livestock it is generally around the dissemination of elite genetics to use in a breeding program. Cloning offers a way for breeders to advance their breeding program. In horses, the reasons range from breeding a unique animal to performance of an elite animal. In companion animals, the reasons are often driven by a desire to reproduce the genetics of a very special animal. Sometimes this animal provided a unique service as many service dogs have proven to have unique capabilities and often it is simply a dog or cat that had a special bond with the owner. Cloning is an advanced reproductive tool that allows the owner to reproduce a genetic twin. There is no other method to reproduce the unique genotype of an elite animal.

Cloned stallion, Pure Tailor Fit

How many animals have you cloned over the years, and of these how many were pets, horses, and bovine?

These numbers are confidential, but i can report that we have produced several hundred horses and the cattle and pig volumes are well into the thousands. We initiated our companion animal business about 3 years ago, so the numbers are smaller, but this component of our service is going very well and growing.

Someone who cannot afford the cost of cloning, I’m told, can preserve the genes of the animal until such time they are ready to go ahead with cloning. Please tell us about how this is done and what it costs? 

We offer genetic preservation for any non-primate mammal for $1600. This is the first stage of the cloning process as the donor animal provides a biopsy (taken by the animal’s veterinarian) and we grow and cryo-preserve a cell line from the donor. This cell line can be stored indefinitely and provides the opportunity for cloning at any point in the future. We have cloned animals whose DNA was stored more than 20 years ago. ViaGen stores these cell lines in protected areas and in multiple locations to protect the cell lines from any event creating a total loss.

Are the clones as good in ‘performance’ as the genes would indicate?

Each performance athlete is the product of both genetics and environment. Each cloned animal will have the same genetic potential of the donor. The environment interaction with those genetics will determine the eventual performance. There are many examples of our cloned animals performing at world class levels (polo horses for example) even though many of our cloned animals are produced with the primary intent of a breeding career.   In the service dog sector, we have professionals who feel the cloned dogs have superior performance as they tailor the environment to capture the best of the specific genotype.

Similarly, if an affectionate pet is cloned would the behavior be the same?

Personality traits are a function of genetics x environment. It will always be important for these animals to be in the best environment for their specific genetics.   We receive very positive feedback from our clients explaining amazing similarities in behavior. This has been a particular highlight of our companion animal service.

There is the famous case which was widely reported about Barbara Streisand having her pet cloned. Was it you?

We do not speak about specific clients, as we have a confidentiality clause in each of our agreements with our clients. However, we did receive permission from the Streisands to confirm, that Yes, we are the service provider.

Our readers mainly comprise young adults in different parts of the world who look up to high achievers such as you for inspiration. A word of advice for them?

Pursue your dreams. Always believe in yourself. Success is a combination of vision, hard work, and timing – with emphasis on hard work. Stay committed to your dreams and put in the work. Surround yourself with talented people. Never be afraid to work alongside people smarter than yourself. This will elevate your performance.

Photos: From the archive of Blake Russell

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