By Kim Tong-hyung
The messy patent battle between the world’s only two companies involved in commercial dog cloning is about to get uglier.
Start Licensing, a Texas-based venture that holds the licenses for the cloning technology developed for the cloning of Dolly the sheep, owned by the Roslin Institute, said Friday (Korean time) it is preparing to sue Seoul-based RNL Bio for violation of patents for animal cloning technology.
RNL is baring its teeth as well with chief executive Ra Jeong-chan threatening to sue a South Korean research organization for providing their technologies to rival cloning company BioArts, linked with Start Licensing.
RNL Tuesday announced the successful cloning of five puppies from a dead pit bull named ``Booger,” at the request of 58-year-old Californian resident Bernann McKinney, although the puppies have yet to be verified by an independent DNA test.
Relying on a research team led by Seoul National University (SNU) scientist Lee Byeong-chun, who was involved in producing the world’s first cloned dog, Snuppy, in 2005, RNL has been strengthening efforts to kick start a global industry for commercial cloning.
Earlier this year, RNL cloned seven Labrador retrievers, genetic copies of a top drug sniffing dog named Chase, upon a request by the Korea Customs Service.
In June, RNL produced four clones from Marine, a retriever trained to recognize the scent of chemicals found in cancer cells, and said it will sell each puppy for about 500 million won (about $488,000). With the cloning of the Booger puppies, the company said it would start gathering individual customers looking to clone their pets.
Not if Start Licensing has things go their way, as the U.S. company maintains that RNL had no right to engage in the aforementioned commercial activities.
Start Licensing has granted exclusive rights to San Francisco-based BioArts to practice its licensed technology for the cloning of animals using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).
BioArts, which is engaged in a dog fight with RNL over exclusive cloning rights, relies on the technology of Lee’s former colleague, Hwang Woo-suk, the former rock star scientist who became a pariah after his work on cloned human stem cells was exposed as fraudulent. The production of Snuppy, however, happens to be one of Hwang’s verified achievements.
``It is regrettable that RNL has acted so irresponsibly and continued its dog cloning activities in blatant disregard of the law,” said Jonathan Thatcher, president of Start Licensing, in an e-mailed statement.
``Under the circumstances, Start and Roslin are left with little choice but to enforce our patent rights to end RNL’s infringement.”
Roslin sent a cease and desist letter to RNL on July 13, but Ra said the company didn’t feel the need to answer. RNL claims it has been granted exclusive rights for the technology for the cloning of dogs, developed during 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.
``They could bring us to court a hundred times and we can beat them a hundred times,” Ra told The Korea Times.
``Genetics Savings & Clone, the predecessor of BioArts, tried and failed to produce a canine clone for five years before closing, and they were only able to get back in the game by making a desperate pick in Hwang Woo-suk. I don’t think their case can stand up in court as they can never prove it’s possible to clone a dog using the Dolly patents without excessive experiment.
``We don’t think its right for them to claim they have exclusive rights for the use of nuclear transfer cloning technology when it has been used since the 1950s,” he said.
It has been a crazy week for RNL, which hoped to benefit from the global publicity following the berth of the Booger clones and the visit of Bernann McKinney, who agreed to pay $50,000 to clone her late pit bull which saved her from a vicious attack from another dog in 1997.
However, the public relations angle became complicated when it was suggested that McKinney had formerly been known as Joyce McKinney, the former Miss Wyoming who jumped bail and went hiding from British prosecutors for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a Mormon missionary in 1978.
Talking with The Korea Times, a sobbing McKinney denied that she was the same person and said she will sue the British newspaper which first reported the story, for “millions” for printing ``slander.”
However, in the heat of the conversation, McKinney also said she doesn’t ``give a rot” about what happened 30 years ago.
``This is supposed to be a story about a crippled women getting her lifelong companion back, why is everyone looking for trashy stories,” exclaimed McKinney, who also said her mother was hospitalized after the report came out.