Monkeys today, humans tomorrow ... cloning is getting too close for comfort
The first monkeys cloned in the same way as Dolly the Sheep have been born, raising concerns that it may soon be possible to clone humans.
Chinese scientists yesterday announced the births of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, a pair of healthy macaques that are genetically identical.
The infants are being bottle-fed and are said to be growing normally compared with monkeys their age. More cloned births are expected this year.
Previously scientists have “cloned” primates by splitting an embryo in half, but the process is essentially just artificial twinning rather than true cloning.
Researchers said they were hoping it would allow the creation of large numbers of genetically uniform monkeys, which could be used in labs to improve research.
The study was greeted with mixed opinion from British scientists and ethics charities. Darren Griffin, professor of genetics at the University of Kent, said: “The first report of cloning of a non-human primate will undoubtedly raise a series of ethical concerns, with critics evoking the slippery slope argument of this being one step closer to human cloning.”
The Scottish Council on Human Bioethics warned the research “opens the door” to human cloning.
There is a very serious risk that human clones would just be created to fulfil the desires of their creators. Humans should never be brought into existence to just replace a person who already exists or who has died because some parents want a copy of a famous or desirable person.Researcher Dr Callum MacKellar
Dr Callum MacKellar, the director of research of the SCHB, said: “There is a very serious risk that human clones would just be created to fulfil the desires of their creators. Humans should never be brought into existence to just replace a person who already exists or who has died because some parents want a copy of a famous or desirable person. Children should be created for themselves no matter who they are.”
Human cloning is banned under international law and Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, group leader of the Francis Crick Institute in London, warned it would be “foolish” to attempt to clone humans using the same technique. “It would be far too inefficient, far too unsafe, and it is also pointless,” he said. “Clones may be genetically identical, but we are far from only being a product of our genes.”
In their experiments, Chinese scientists took donor eggs from monkeys and removed the nucleus before adding tissue cells from a macaque foetus, and implanting them into a surrogate.
Although Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua are genetically identical, having received DNA from the same monkey, they were born two weeks apart to different surrogate mothers.
The same technique was used by the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh to create Dolly the sheep in 1996, the first mammal to be cloned.
Until now, attempts to carry out the same process in primates have proved difficult because of the far more complicated process of cell division and early development.
The Chinese team solved the problem by switching on and off certain genes that were preventing the embryos from forming properly.
Although the technique worked when using cells from a monkey foetus, scientists found that when they attempted the same process using adult cells, the baby monkeys only lived for a few hours after birth. Out of 79 attempts, only two babies were born.
“We tried several different methods, but only one worked,” said Qiang Sun, director of the Nonhuman Primate Research Facility at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience.
Critics questioned whether the experiments were ethical. “Cloning these monkeys involved many failed attempts, which causes enormous suffering to animals involved,” said Dr Helen Wallace, director of GeneWatch UK.
The scientists say they plan to continue improving the technique. The research was published in the journal Cell.