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Monday, January 25, 2021

Cloning: Fort Worth firm seeks the best polo ponies in the world

Alan Meeker is a man with a goal. Or perhaps more accurately, he is a man with many goals.

Goals to improve the lives of humans through the development of cutting-edge medical technologies, and goals to improve the prestigious equine sport of polo through the cloning of the world’s top polo horses.

And with focus, tenacity and capital investment – lots of capital investment – Meeker is achieving his goals.

From his offices on the 20th floor of the Pier 1 Building, the fourth-generation Fort Worthian draws diagrams on a large white board wall to help explain some of the initiatives his CQuentia Labs and Crestview Research Foundation are involved with in the world of human medicine and health care.

These include such cutting-edge technologies as genetic testing, gene mapping and predictive analytics to developing the technology that could potentially lead to a cure for Type 1 diabetes.

Meeker also continues to be a big player in the oil and gas sector.

From 1998 to 2008, Conglomerate Gas – founded by Alan and his closest brother, Dan – was one of the largest lease holders in the then-booming Barnett Shale, before selling most of those interests in July 2008 just prior to the September ’08 stock market crash.

“My mother will tell you that I’m the smartest person alive, but I’ll tell you that I’m the luckiest,” Meeker joked.

But like many successful business people, Meeker makes his own luck.

And the one endeavor that has brought the most fame to an otherwise very private person is the success of his company Crestview Genetics, which is focused on perpetuating and enhancing the genetics of elite polo horses through cloning.

Crestview’s success with cloning even attracted the attention of CBS’s 60 Minutes, which featured Meeker and the cloning of polo horses (known in the sport as ponies) in an episode aired on March 11, 2018. (See: bit.ly/ponyclone)

A dictionary definition describes a clone as a cell, cell product or organism that is genetically identical to the unit or individual from which it was derived.

Previously a subject limited to science fiction, cloning of mammals has become a reality in the last 22 years, with a cloned sheep produced in 1996. Cloned cows, pigs, goats, rabbits, mice and cats followed, and according to the Kentucky Equine Research Center, the first horse was cloned in 2003.

In layman’s terms, the process of cloning a horse begins by taking skin cells from the donor animal and implanting that genetic material into an egg of a donor mare (female horse) after the egg’s own DNA is removed.

The new embryo containing only the donor horse’s cells is then incubated for 10 days and implanted into the uterus of a host or “recipient mare.” The recipient mare carries the fetus for a normal 11-month gestation period and the foal that is born is genetically identical to the donor.

WAIT 50 YEARS, OR START CLONING NOW

It was a lifelong involvement with horses that brought Meeker to the point in 2008 when he began his cloning pursuits. He has been active in equestrian sports since he was 6 years old and started competing in three-day eventing – the combination of dressage, cross-country and show jumping – at the age of 8. He competed through his mid-20s, then took several years off to totally focus on his business activities before he began playing polo at the age of 31.

Meeker, now 53, focuses his time playing polo in Aiken, South Carolina, a mecca for polo enthusiasts. In Aiken, he owns the 415-acre Crestview Farm, where he keeps from 40 to 100 horses and plays polo each weekend during the seasons that run from April-June and again from September-November.

He has played polo on six continents, including in a charity match in England in 1999 with Prince Philip and Prince Harry.

In 2008, Meeker’s competitive nature led him to want to develop the foremost breeding herd of polo horses in the world.

Polo is an extremely fast-paced sport, where two teams of four players each compete on a field 300 yards long and 120 yards wide ¬– the size of nine football fields. Matches are divided into chukkas – time periods, each lasting seven minutes.

During a polo match, a competitor may ride as many as a dozen horses. It is often said that the horse is 70 or 80 percent of the importance in a polo match, with the rider providing the rest.

“I did some short math and I realized it would take 50 years and about $100 million to do what I wanted to do” to develop the best breeding string of polo ponies in the world, Meeker said. “And I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I just clone a bunch of horses, really, really good horses.’ ”

Meeker approached Argentine polo legend Adolfo Cambiaso, often referred to as the world’s greatest polo player. Cambiaso also owned some of the top polo horses in the world, and in 2009, for a seven-figure sum, Meeker licensed the genetics of those top horses from Cambiaso, who is now a partner with Meeker in their cloning labs.

Initially, Meeker used the services of an Austin-based company named ViaGen to perform the cloning services, but after learning he was their largest customer, he licensed their Intellectual property for use in his own labs. Now, since the ViaGen IP and patents expired in 2016, with the assistance of top equine veterinarians and scientists, Meeker has developed his own cloning technology and procedures, which he says result in an 85 percent success rate for delivering a live foal.

At their Crestview Genetics Argentina lab, they can produce up to 100 cloned horses per year. And in 2017, Meeker opened The Crestview Reproduction Center (The CRC) in Aiken, the only non-university laboratory in the U.S.A. that offers cloning services – Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) – as well as other sophisticated state-of-the-art equine reproductive services.

Meeker’s Crestview cloning operations are primarily focused on producing clones for his and Cambiaso’s use as competitive polo horses and for breeding purposes, but they also offer commercial cloning services for other horse owners.

Meeker said they charge up to $100,000 to clone a horse, with a live foal guarantee.

IT’S CUARTETERA … TIMES SIX

When Meeker and Cambiaso began their cloning operation, the one very important thing that no one knew for sure was how the clones would perform in competition relative to their famous “originals.” That answer was provided with astoundingly positive results with the clones of a great mare named Cuartetera.

Cambiaso has raised Cuartetera from birth in 2001, and the mare is recognized as the greatest polo pony in history.

At the 2016 Argentine Open (the equivalent of the Super Bowl of polo in a country where polo is the preeminent sport) Cambiaso rode six Cuartetera clones to lead his team to victory. And then to put an exclamation point on the proof of their ability, the team defended its championship in the 2017 Argentine Open last December, with Cambiaso again riding six clones of Cuartetera, while his teammates rode clones of Lapa and Small Person, the names of other champion horses cloned by Crestview.

NATURE VS. NURTURE

Whether its horses or humans, people often debate the “nature versus nurture” or “heredity versus environment” argument. Meeker says that he and his cloning activities have become something of a test case for the whole debate.

With the first group of Cuartetera clones spending their first year at Crestview Farm in South Carolina and then being sent to Argentina, Meeker and Cambiaso were very focused on providing the clones as close to the same environment, training, feed and so forth as the original Cuartetera and other champions they cloned years before.

But as an experiment, Meeker kept one of the Cuartetera clones in the United States and placed her with a top trainer, but under a totally different training regimen.

Those results were astounding. That horse, a mare named Cuartetera B-09, was then ridden by Cambiaso in the 2016 U.S. Open Polo Championship and named best playing pony of the tournament.

Cambiaso then also competed on Cuartetera B-09 in the 2017 Argentine Open, where she was also honored as best playing pony of the final and the entire Argentine Open. And she earned those accolades as a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old, a very precocious age compared with the normal 7-to10-year-old horses that compete in world-class high-goal polo matches.

The Cuartetera clones raised in a similar fashion to the “original” were great, but the one taken out of that environment was perhaps even better.

“I can’t prove it, but I believe there is evidence of cellular memory in the clones,” Meeker says. “Even though its sequence remains constant, subtle chemical changes occur to DNA as horses [or humans] age.

“DNA methylation is a process by which methyl groups are added to the DNA molecule. Methylation can change the activity of a DNA segment without changing the sequence,” he said.

“I believe that since we utilized the DNA of a mature Cuartetera that had the natural ability and the training to be a champion, the clones received the benefit of the DNA methylation that had developed in the mature original Cuartetera. A predisposition to be trained and be highly competitive was transferred to the clones in addition to the temperament,” Meeker said.

KEEPING THE “FACTORY”

Meeker, Cambiaso and their third Crestview Genetics partner, Ernesto Gutierrez, have decided not to sell any of the clones of horses such as Cuartetera. However, they do sell the offspring produced from a cloned mare and sired by a stallion in more traditional breeding methods.

“If we sold one of our clones of Cuartetera or Lapa, we would be selling the original genetic material that someone else could then clone for themselves. That takes us out of the loop,” Meeker said.

“However, with the program we have in place, we will sell the foals of the Cuartetera clones crossed with top polo stallions, thus propagating top genes to other polo breeders and enthusiasts and, we feel, raising the bar and improving the breed as the female genes can be the foundation as opposed to the traditional stallion orientation of breeding,” he said.

And the market shows that other polo breeders feel the same way. The embryos and offspring of those clones have brought prices from $90,000 to $250,000 each when purchased through public auctions or private sales.

Meeker says he and his partners currently have 14 Cuartetera clones in their breeding program, and they plan to add 10 more each year in the coming years.

FACING TYPE 1 DIABETES

AND WORKING TOWARD A CURE

While Alan Meeker would appear to lead a charmed life, he does face one daily challenge that brings things back into perspective.

In 2000, at age 35, he developed Type 1 diabetes, in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. This is a chronic disease faced by millions of Americans and one that currently has no cure.

A constant reminder and companion to Meeker is his diabetic alert dog, Pecco, a Malinois specifically trained to react to the chemical change produced by blood sugar highs and lows.

Meeker chose to face his Type 1 diabetes like any other challenge in his life. Head on.

He formed the Crestview Research Institute, located in the Bahamas. The institute’s scientists have advanced to the point where they have been able to produce insulin-producing beta islet cells from a donor’s non-beta islet cells in a laboratory setting.

While still in the relatively early stages, these advancements could lead to a major breakthrough for the treatment or even cure of Type 1 diabetes.

Meeker has a vision for growing the institute’s charitable arm to over $1 billion, and after reaching that critical mass, offering treatment to Type 1 diabetics from around the world on a “pay only what you can afford” basis.

Meeker has a vision for growing the foundation to over $1 billion, and, after reaching that critical mass, offering treatment to Type 1 diabetics from around the world on a “pay only what you can afford” basis.

“I admire the quote from Mark Twain, who said: ‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.’ My life’s purpose is to be a father to my two sons (Aiden, 14, and Gavin, 12). If I can live longer by working on a cure – and finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes – then that’s my goal; to extend my time on earth as a father.”

Goals on the polo field, and goals in life. Alan Meeker has those.

And he’s busy making all of them happen.

Jeff Hooper is owner and principal of Capital H Strategies, a firm focused on assisting entities in the areas of revenue generation, marketing, public relations, strategic planning, strategic partnerships, communications and governmental relations. He previously was executive director of the Texas Thoroughbred Association, vice president of administration for Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie and executive director of the Fort Worth-based National Cutting Horse Association.

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