A team of Chinese scientists have recently achieved the biggest breakthrough of 2018, and arguably one of the biggest in the decade: they have successfully cloned monkeys.
For cloning the two long-tailed macaques—who are completely identical—scientists used the exact same technique used in the widely reported case of Molly the sheep over two decades ago in 1996.
The cute and furry pair (to be honest, one look at them and any worries about cloning seem to dissipate instantly) are named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, and no doubt the repetitive naming convention is not a coincidence.
They were born eight and six weeks ago, respectively. This is, in fact, the first case in history of any cloning of a primate using a non-embryonic cell as the source. The formal name of the procedure is somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), involving a transfer of the nucleus of a cell into an enucleated egg (an egg that has had its nucleus removed). More than 127 eggs were used before the team achieved success.
The study, titled “Cloning of Macaque Monkeys by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer”, was published this week in Cell journal. The success of the cloning underscores two very important differences, however, from the case of Molly the sheep:
1) Unlike the case before involving bovine animals, the cloning subjects here are primates, closer relatives of humans, which sets the case apart.
2) It brings the question of cloning humans to the forefront now more than ever, which is sure to generate new questions and stir even more controversy.
The team carrying out the research are part of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai expressed the sentiment that their work will serve as a contribution to medical research in the area of epidemiology. “Humans are primates. So [for] the cloning of primate species, including humans, the technical barrier is now broken,” Muming Poo, a researcher who helped supervise the program at CAS, told reporters in a conference call. “The reason...we broke this barrier is to produce animal models that are useful for medicine, for human health. There is no intention to apply this method to humans.” The researchers added they are expecting to continue their research to produce more macaque clones in the following months.
As expected, the news of the primate cloning has generated some opposition in the scientific community. “It remains a very inefficient and hazardous procedure,” said Robin Lovell-Badge, a cloning expert at the Francis Crick Institute in London not involved in the research study. “The work in this paper is not a stepping-stone to establishing methods for obtaining live born human clones. This clearly remains a very foolish thing to attempt.”
Back in 2015 in UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 it was written, “In the past couple of years, CAS has come under enormous pressure from the political leadership to produce visible achievements.” In other words, the mounting government initiatives that are pushing scientific research and innovation may produce an atmosphere within the scientific community in China to produce results by any means necessary.
Similar anger arose in 2015 when a team at Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University announced that they had been carrying out a round of experiments designed with the aim of editing the DNA of human embryos.
Perhaps the most settling reality that remains is that the goal of these types of experiments emerging from China remains unclear: generating scientific interest, supporting aggressive government initiatives, or making a contribution to the scientific community.