“Clone!” would be the resounding response if you asked Professor William “Twink” Allen of the Equine Fertility Unit of the Thoroughbred Breeders Association in Newmarket, England. Professor Allen developed the procedure and technology used in equine cloning experiments around the world, including mules and horses “born” in the U.S., Italy and Australia.
But it’s not that simple, at least not in the United Kingdom. When Professor Allen applied for a license to clone equine embryos in 2001, his request was rejected and his projects were curtailed in spite of his world leadership role in the process. Allen refused to take “no” for an answer and battled on in a legal process that resulted in an overturn of the UK ban on March 30 of this year.
Professor Allen’s celebration was short-lived, however, as the government tempered his approval with the caveat that his cloning be limited to research purposes only. Cloning of horses for any commercial purpose remains illegal in England.
“It is absurd!” Allen told EQUUS magazine in April. “This is a perverse ruling, in the extreme. Our goal is not the exploitation of horses.”
Chief among Allen’s goals is cloning the DNA of champion geldings. Looking back to a typical Badminton Three-Day Event, he cited 118 entries, comprised of 114 geldings and 4 mares. Each of the mares was over 14 years old. “You’re talking about a championship event between a bunch of eunuchs and four grandmothers.
“We are not out to reproduce winning geldings directly, but to make their championship DNA available,” he stressed.
Research projects at Allen’s lab that are approved by the British government include equine mitochondrial DNA research and the function of paternal antigens, which affect the mare’s immune system and allow pregnancy to take place without spontaneous abortion. “Mares would normally reject the foreign substance, but how and why the paternal antigens function will be valuable research,” Allen stated.
Allen lays part of the blame for his one-hand-tied researcher status at the feet of the government’s compliance with animal -rights activists who oppose cloning research. UK-based Animal Aid has awarded Professor Allen the dubious distinction of being one of its “Mad Scientist” award winners. Allen was singled out, along with researchers at the Animal Health Trust, Cambridge University, the Royal Veterinary College, Intervet UK and University of Edinburgh for conducting research perceived as injurious to horses.
“They’re afraid we’ll make a mistake and create an abnormal animal,” Allen said, referring to the government’s conditional lift of the ban on his projects. “In France, they have the DNA of 30 champion competition geldings on ice, but they don’t have the science. We have it, but we’re not allowed to do it.”