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A Horse Joins the Cloned World

Italian scientists announce birth of first cloned foal

(HealthDay is the new name for HealthScout News.)

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 6, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- It's too late for Seabiscuit, but maybe not for Funny Cide or Empire Maker.

The world's first cloned horse, Prometea, was born in Italy on May 28. Her creators are hoping her historic appearance will pave the way for cloned thoroughbreds, perhaps with an eye to a few good days at the races.

The details appear in the Aug. 7 issue of Nature.

"Of course, it's the first horse and that's remarkable, although not quite as remarkable now that a mule has already been cloned," says Robert Foote, professor emeritus of animal physiology at Cornell University.

Prometea is, in fact, the latest in a line of animals to be cloned, including Dolly the sheep in 1996 and Idaho Gem, the first cloned equine/mule, born May 4, 2003.

The latest addition to the universe of the cloned is "not any special horse," according to her creator, Dr. Cesare Galli, director of laboratory reproductive technologies at the Consortium for Zootechnical Improvement in Cremona, Italy. Her mother was purchased simply to be able to perform this kind of experiment.

Galli and his colleagues took skin cells from a Haflinger female and from an Arabian thoroughbred and fused them with empty eggs. The activated eggs were then cultured and transferred to the wombs of different mares, including the original Haflinger female.

The researchers managed to construct 328 embryos from both the male and female lines. Four mares subsequently became pregnant and one foal, Prometea, was produced after a 336-day pregnancy.

Another notable, and unintended, part of the experiment was that Prometea was born to her genetic mother. Researchers had doubts that a creature could give birth to a genetically identical organism, given that some immune response is necessary for a successful pregnancy.

"We didn't set out to do that particular experiment," Galli says. "It's been an interesting finding, but it was not planned. Yes, we were surprised."

Prometea (or Prometheus), was a Titan in Greek mythology who was punished by Zeus for stealing fire from heaven and giving it to humans. The naming was a continuation of a long joke, Galli explains. He cloned a bull in 1999, which he named Galileo. "The health minister was a fervent Catholic who was opposed to cloning, so she brought us to court and the bull went to jail," Galli says. "Prometea is following up the joke. If someone would dare challenge us, she must be brave."

"Even though we have one Prometea, the procedure still has a long way to go," Foote says. "When there's only one offspring out of 328, it's still a very primitive procedure that has a very low repeatability. From a scientific standpoint, we haven't learned much more about cloning. From the publicity standpoint and from a business standpoint, there's no doubt there will be more money for trying to make clones from famous racetrack winners. Hopefully this will also develop better procedures and increase scientific knowledge."

Galli says there will probably first be requests to clone champion geldings (castrated horses) before there are requests for cloned thoroughbreds. But don't take out your wallets just yet.

"If you select clones, you increase the probability of winners as compared to nonwinners, but even well-known race horses are not necessarily always sure," Foote says. "Last weekend, the horse that won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness [Funny Cide] was defeated. There's lots of variability. You never know what's going to be the best horse. They won't all turn out to be winners."

More information

For more on Haflinger horses, visit the American Haflinger Registry. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a cloning fact sheet.

SOURCES: Cesare Galli, D.V.M., director, laboratory reproductive technologies, Consortium for Zootechnical Improvement, Cremona, Italy; Robert Foote, Ph.D., professor emeritus, animal physiology, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.; Aug. 7, 2003, Nature; photo by Giovanna Lazzari
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