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Last Updated: Monday, 16 February, 2004, 02:00 GMT
Mule clones open disease window
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff, in Seattle

They are bright-eyed, bouncy and very friendly. The world's first mule clones are the product of a $1m scientific programme - and their creator Gordon Woods is very keen that you should check out "the boys".

Idaho Gem, Utah Pioneer and Idaho Star
Dr Woods says the mules' work is done
"Idaho Gem, Utah Pioneer and Idaho Star enjoy getting out," the research veterinarian tells his audience.

"I'd like you to ask yourself if you think these are healthy animals. Every person who asks that question draws the same conclusion - they are."

The clones took centre stage here on Sunday at the world's largest general science conference.

Corralled in a temporary enclosure at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in downtown Seattle, the mules drew a huge crowd of inquisitive onlookers.

Top dollar

Gem is the first of the line. Not only did he become the first "photocopy" mule when he was born on 4 May 2003, he also became the first clone of any animal in the horse family, and the first clone of an animal which cannot normally reproduce.

Idaho Gem
Idaho Gem: The first equine clone
Mules are hybrids - the product of the union of a female horse and a male donkey - and are generally sterile.

Pioneer and Star followed Gem in June and July - all were cloned from the same skin cell line taken from a 45-day-old mule foetus.

Now that they have succeeded in cloning these equines, Dr Woods says his team intends this year to clone normal horses.

The team have already been approached by individuals who would like to have champion horses copied. The money is an issue, of course.

Dr Woods suggests it would probably cost about $200,000 to do - a money-spinner that could potentially fund the University of Idaho scientist's other passion which is to understand the causes of some human diseases.

Prostate cancer

He told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that his cloned mules came about because calcium concentrations were raised at key stages in the process of manipulating the animals' egg cells. 

This built on work that had shown calcium concentrations are a key factor in regulating cell activity, and that lower than expected levels inside equine cells may have contributed to the poor success of in vitro fertilisation efforts in horses.

University of Idaho display
Dr Woods has a personal interest in diabetes
Dr Woods says this knowledge is now being turned on humans in whom a decrease in intracellular calcium could possibly bring about a beneficial response in certain diseases such as diabetes and prostate cancer.  

"There is an electrifying similarity between rapidly dividing cancer cells and rapidly dividing embryo cells. Both cell divisions are regulated by intracellular calcium.

"From a comparative standpoint, cancer mortality is 24% in humans - it's only 8% in horses. Prostate cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in men; not once has prostate cancer been identified in stallions.

"These diseases are characterised by abnormally high intracellular calcium," Dr Woods told the BBC.

"In marked contrast to horses, in which we propose their cell activity is below an optimal level, in certain diseased humans we propose their cell activity is above an optimal level.  The key is to discover which chemicals regulate intracellular calcium in humans." 

On the track

His intention is to use the horse - "a thousand-pound 'mouse with hooves'" - to get at some of the secrets. And diabetes holds a particular interest for Dr Woods.

"My father died aged 33 in 1955. It's not just that his life was cut short, his quality of life was cut short. Diabetes is a horrible disease."

The mule clones will play no part in this research. Their job is done.

They were the proof of principle, Dr Woods says, of the key role played by calcium in equine embryo cell activation, and can now simply enjoy themselves.

The boys will continue to run out on the pasture outside his office window and will be constantly monitored to see if they stay healthy.

In time, just like normal mules, they will be gelded. One of them is also likely to end up on a race track in the US. The cloning work was part funded by a mule-racing enthusiast.

The BBC's Christine McGourty
"Producing the clones involved altering the embryo's cell activity"

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