By Kim Tong-hyung
A high-stakes court battle is set to pit some of the world's most famous gene scientists, or infamous in the case of Hwang Woo-suk, against each other in an international dispute over the commercial rights for animal cloning.
The patent battle between the world's two companies involved in the business of dog cloning is about to get under way in a Korean court.
Start Licensing, a Texas-based company that holds licenses for the technology developed for the cloning of Dolly the sheep, owned by the Roslin Institute, is preparing to sue Seoul-based RNL Bio for a violation of patents on animal cloning technology.
According to officials close to the development, Start Licensing, which has since hired a Korean law firm, is ``very near'' to filing the papers.
``Things are going to heat up in the next month or two,'' said a source.
The company can also bring an all-star lineup of international scientists here to testify in court. This means that Hwang could be making his first public appearance since being dismissed from Seoul National University (SNU) in 2006 for his fraudulent studies on cloned human stem cells.
``Although the lawyers may try to spare Ian Wilmut and other high-profile scientists from the witness stand and have them present written statements instead, it is hard to tell how this saga will wind up,'' said a Seoul-based patent lawyer.
BioArts CEO Lou Hawthorne
BioArts, which obtained the commercial rights to clone animals from Start Licensing, relies on work by Hwang and his colleagues at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation to provide its dog cloning services.
If push comes to shove, Hwang would end up facing his former colleague Lee Byeong-chun, the SNU scientist who has been providing the technology for RNL, which cloned five puppies from a dead pitbull named ``Booger'' at the request of 58-year-old Californian Bernann McKinney.
Hwang and Lee had collaborated to produce the world's first cloned dog, Snuppy, in 2005. Now, one will be forced to talk down his own achievements in court as the other tries to emphasize the scope and significance of the SNU patents.
RNL, which recently filed a suit against Sooam, claims it has been granted exclusive rights for the technology for the cloning of dogs from the Snuppy project, and any genetic reproduction of canines should go through them.
However, BioArts claim that the Roslin patents are ``foundational" patents and that the SNU patent could only be an ``improvement," which needs the rights to the underlying foundational technology to avoid infringement.
Although a massive amount of ink and electrons will be used to cover the legal battle between Start Licensing and RNL, it remains debatable whether dog cloning is a market worth fighting for.
Lou Hawthorne, the chief executive of BioArts, who believes the dog cloning industry could eventually be worth a ``few hundred million dollars,'' said the international dispute over the patent rights has brought larger uncertainties to the market.
BioArts is currently working to diversify its business, looking to strengthen its presence in the fields of genetic testing, molecular diagnostics and stem cell research.
However, Hawthorne is unsure whether dog cloning would account for a significant part of the company's revenue in the future. He also accuses RNL of ``destroying'' the market by aggressively lowering its prices.
RNL recently announced it would clone 10 dogs at for $50,000 each. BioArts sold four orders for a combined $620,000, with the Sooam researchers recently establishing a pregnancy for one of the orders.
``It remains to be seen whether there will be any viable market left after RNL is done dumping … The market of dog cloning certainly isn't worth anything if you drive your price below cost,'' Hawthorne told the Korea Times, claiming that RNL turned a ``Ferrari market'' into a ``Volkswagen market.''
``What's the logic of pushing the price to a level when you need to sell thousands of something when you can only make dozens of them. You are leaving money on the table,'' he said.
BioArts, which had signed Sooam to a contract to clone five dogs, is now discussing an on-going production agreement with Hwang's laboratory. However, Hawthorne said there is a possibility that the company may choose not to extend its relationship with Sooam should it lose faith in the dog cloning market as a whole.
``It will be very clear within six to 12 months that RNL doesn't have a case (in court),'' Hawthorne said.