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Who is Behind the Pet Cloning Industry?

by The Center for Genetics and Society
April 14th, 2005

The most significant individual in the nascent pet cloning industry is the billionaire John Sperling. He represents the direct, overt connection between the cloning and genetic modification of pets and the potential cloning and genetic modification of human beings. He has paid for cats to be cloned, holds patents to the cloning technology used to create Dolly the Sheep, has bankrolled a human "anti-aging" business, has stated his support for human "enhancement," and is attempting to influence the direction of the Democratic Party.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) has opposed attempts to ban the cloning and genetic modification of pets. It has not yet taken a position on California's AB 1428.

John Sperling

John Sperling

John Sperling made his fortune, estimated at $3 billion, from the University of Phoenix, a for-profit adult education institution which he founded in 1976. It has been accused of being a "diploma mill" and "McUniversity," but when the holding company, Apollo Group, Inc., went public in 1994, his wealth exploded. He's used the windfall idiosyncratically, giving $3.4 million to sponsor medical marijuana initiatives and spending a couple of million in 2004 on political ads with a libertarian technophile bent.

Sperling has invested millions in companies he established to create cloned and genetically modified animals, and has a major stake in opposing any legislation that would ban these practices. He has shown a willingness to take public and controversial stands, and seems to enjoy a fight.

Sperling's Companies

Biotechnology has become a major focus of Sperling's activities. His decision in 2001 to attempt to have a pet dog, Missy, cloned lead directly to the creation of Genetic Savings and Clone . ViaGen, which was spun off from GSC and is now part of Exeter Life Sciences (one of Sperling's holding companies), has "customers in the livestock, aquaculture and companion animal industries." According to its website:

"ViaGen currently offers commercial cloning services for cattle and hogs. We expect to offer horse cloning on a commercial basis beginning in 2005. Please contact us directly for information regarding other animals."

The company also offers gene banking for "any livestock species, including horses"

Clone Horses

Exeter bought the patent on the technology used to clone Dolly the Sheep from PPL Therapeutics in 2003 for about $1.4 million. It also considered buying all or part of Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT), the maverick cloning company that claimed to have cloned the first human embryo.

Another company held by Exeter, Arcadia BioSciences, is involved in research on genetically modified food crops.

Sperling has committed extensive resources to extending the human life span, up to and including the possibility of immortality. He has said, "I am 100 percent for human enhancement!" He plans to leave his fortune to a foundation to continue this work.

Exeter is the parent company of the Kronos Group, whose CEO, Jonathan Thatcher, is also President of Exeter. Kronos (the name is from the Greek for 'time', or 'lifetime') was set up as an anti-aging or life-extension enterprise. The President of its Science Laboratories subsidiary, Christopher Heward, has longstanding connections with the cult-like Extropy Institute, and founded a company with Gregory Stock, one of the most prominent advocates of inheritable human genetic engineering. "I got approved for $1 million per year to investigate longevity genes," said one scientist. "I have never been able to get that type of money from the government, not in 17, 18 years. It was too far out."

Kronos currently markets "optimal health" (Sperling himself takes 23 pills a day) and downplays its interest in immortality. Thatcher says, "We're on the edge, not the fringe. We're trying desperately to keep one foot in the mainstream. You can't be just on the fringe and make a difference."

Democratic Party Politics

Sperling sees himself as a champion of the underdog. He says he founded the University of Phoenix largely to broaden access to higher education. He has been a major funder of the Democratic Party for years, and donated significantly to John Kerry's 2004 campaign for the presidency.

He also co-wrote The Great Divide: Retro vs Metro America, which was released in 2004 (presumably self-published; Polipoint Press has no other titles). The book urged Democrats to focus on what he saw as their base - the "metro" vote - and to leave the "retro" vote to the Republicans. He backed this up with a large advertising campaign. In Sperling's vision, the Democrats should become the party of elite techno-corporate entrepreneurs and their creative, socially liberal employees and customers living in the metropolitan communities of the United States. They should leave the uneducated working class, religious and rural constituencies to the Republicans.

A review of The Great Divide in the New York Times concluded that it gave some Democrats

"demographic, poll-based vindication for the strategy they have been pursuing all along: forget the focus on class conflict that defined the party in the old days, and rebrand the Democrats as the voice of enlightened industry versus dirty industry; of sensitive, artistic billionaires versus loathsome, racist billionaires.... Sperling and company have walked cluelessly into a familiar stereotype: the 'liberal elite.'"

Company websites:

Brian Alexander, "John Sperling Wants You to Live Forever," Wired, (February 2004)

Brian Alexander, Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion, Basic Books, New York, 2003, especially pp. 235-43

Melanie Warner, "Inside the Very Strange World of Billionaire John Sperling," Fortune, (April 29, 2002)
[not available on the web]

Rebecca Sinderbrand, "Inside 'The Great Divide'," Newsweek, (August 21, 2004)

Wendy Goldman Rohm, "Seven Days of Creation," Wired (January 2004)

Paul Keegan, "Essay Question: The Web is Transforming the University. How and Why? (Please Use Examples.)" Business 2.0, (December 2000);

Jim Drinkard, "Independent voices Rising in Ads," USA Today, (August 18, 2004)

Thomas Frank, "American Psuche," New York Times, (November 28, 2004)

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)

BIO is the main political and lobbying arm of the biotechnology industry. To date it has opposed restrictions on cloned and genetically modified pets. The northern and southern Californian associations - BayBIO and BIOCOM, respectively - jointly wrote letters to the California Fish and Game Commission, on BIO letterhead, objecting both to its ban on GloFish and more generally to its regulations about genetically modified fish. They complained that the "regulatory language adopted by the Commission appears to criminalize the process of transgenesis for these animals" and "effectively ban[s] the commercial or recreational use and possession of transgenic aquatic animals." This is correct, and precisely what the Fish and Game Commission intended to do.

Concerning the GloFish, the industry asserted that lack of evidence of harm was enough to justify an exception to the ban, and cited E.O. Wilson's Biophilia as attesting to the "social and medically therapeutic benefits of companion animals" whom advances in biotechnology are claimed to benefit. In other words, we should genetically modify pets because it will improve their "health and well being."

BIO's director of animal biotechnology supports efforts to create genetically modified pet cats free of allergens and has speculated about "a dog that isn't as susceptible to hip dysplasia, an ailment common among German shepherds and Labrador retrievers that's associated with over-breeding." To date, at least, BIO supports it all. It remains to be seen what position they will take on AB 1428.

BIO's comments on the one-year review of the transgenic fish regulations

BIO's specific comments about the ban on Glofish

Comments by the Center for Food Safety (CFS) on the one-year review of the transgenic fish regulations

CFS's specific comments about the ban on Glofish

Griff Witte, "New Biotech Pets Make Some Uneasy," Washington Post, 03/13/04


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