Have we – and by ‘we’ I mean genetic scientists working in the field of cloning with our implicit approval due to lack of strict regulations and mandatory ethical standards, at least in China – gone too far? Some would say ‘yes’ with the news today that researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai have applied the technique used to clone Dolly the sheep to create genetically identical copies of macaque monkeys. Have we finally gone too far? How long before we hear “too late” to the question of whether it’s possible to do the same with a higher primate (you know which one)?
While these two monkeys are not the first to be cloned (some have been created using the split-embryo method which produces twins but is limited to four clones), they’re the first using the Dolly technique -- single cell nuclear transfer – where cell nucleus DNA is placed in an egg cell that is then nurtured into an embryo. This technique is capable of making a limitless number of copies. Do we need a limitless number of identical macaques? How about identical annoying humans?
According the study, published in the journal Cell, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences made 79 attempts with 127 eggs before they produced Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua – identical long-tailed macaques born eight and six weeks ago (video of the cute little babies here). That’s a pretty low success rate and it only worked when the cell nucleus DNA came from fetal cells (Dolly’s came from adult cells). However, it’s expected that the technique will be improved.
As expected, the Chinese research team assured everyone with concerns (which is pretty much everyone) that their aim is to use cloned monkeys in medical experiments to find cures for complex diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s that are difficult to study in lab mice or non-primates. Since using monkeys and apes in medical experiments is already controversial and on the way out in other countries such as the U.S., this probably won’t help their noble cause.
What will? The scientists said they followed international guidelines for animal research set by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, but are calling for a debate on new rules for primate cloning.
It certainly doesn’t bode well that the researchers named the monkeys Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua using halves of the Chinese word Zhonghua, which means … get ready … "Chinese people."
Are we ready to stop those of us with enough money and power to ignore laws and ethics from continuing primate cloning and beyond?
Is it too late?