A group of Chinese scientists have cloned the first primates using the same method that cloned Dolly the sheep two decades ago. The monkeys are named Hua Hua and Zhong Zhong, and are reportedly healthy and living in an incubator.
According to a report in the peer-reviewed journal, Cell, the scientists cloned the two macaque monkeys using an optimized version of the technique somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) — the same technique used to create Dolly. Scientists took DNA from the nuclei of fetal monkey cells and placed genes into monkey eggs that had their own DNA extracted. Scientists then activated the eggs to turn them into embryos, which went on to be implanted in the wombs of the surrogate monkeys.
Authors of the report suggest that cloning monkeys will benefit research on human disease.
“As species closer to humans, non-human primates are ideal animal models for studying physiological functions unique to primates and for developing therapeutic treatments of human diseases,” the report states.
While only two monkeys have been born, the long experiment could yield more baby monkeys.
Mumming Poo, an author on the paper, explained to CNN, “by optimizing the method, we obtained 79 well-developed embryos and implanted them in 21 female monkey surrogates.”
So far, that’s resulted in six pregnancies and now the births of Hua Hua and Zhong Zhong. Poo also told CNN that there have been "numerous attempts to clone non-human primate species, but they all failed,” using the SCNT process.
The SCNT method has been successful with other animals like mice, oxen, cows, cats and deer, and dogs have been cloned too.
Dr Julia Baines, a science policy adviser for PETA UK, condemned the recent news in a statement.
“Experimenters in China have reportedly cloned two monkeys with the same technique that was used to create the cloned sheep Dolly,” Baines wrote on the PETA blog. “It’s believed that the macaques, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, have survived for at least 40 to 50 days, but the rest of their lives will be filled with pain and misery and may even be cut short."
The cloned macaque monkeys are significant for being the closest animal (genetically) to humans that have been cloned. That raises ethical questions, such as: is this an initiative researchers should continue to pursue? There have been plenty of debates on cloning, giving both sides an opportunity to opine. Supporters advocate for health research; opposers say it’s a major violation of humanity’s moral code.
In an interesting shift, China now seems to be at the forefront of cloning advancements. In December 2017, it was reported that a Chinese firm also cloned a gene-edited dog with a blood-clotting disorder. Deborah Cao, author of "Animals in China: Law and Society," told CNN in December that lab regulations are more lenient in China.
"Little scholarly investigation and reports have been done into the actual use or abuse of laboratory animals in China," Cao told CNN.