A team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience has cloned a group of five monkeys from a single donor. Their success has attracted widespread condemnation from several ethics experts and animal welfare organizations since some genes have been edited out from the monkeys so that the researchers can conduct medical experiments on them.
BMAL1 is a gene that helps maintain circadian rhythm in the monkeys. The researchers used the CRISPR gene editing tool to make BMAL1 inoperative. As a result, the cloned baby monkeys are now at higher risk of developing hormonal problems, sleeping disorders, and a variety of diseases. In fact, the monkeys are said to have exhibited increased instances of depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia-like behaviors.
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Dr. Mu-ming Poo, the Director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience, justified the cloning as necessary for medical science. Since the process will create monkeys with a uniform genetic background, he argues that drug tests and development can now be conducted with greater efficiency.
“More cloned monkeys will soon be produced… Some of them will carry gene mutations known to cause human brain disorders, in order to generate useful monkey models for drug development and treatment… With further improvement of efficiency, we will be able to generate many monkey clones for biomedical research, similar to the mouse strains now widely used,” he said in a statement (News.Com.Au).
Unsurprisingly, the experiments have been criticized by animal welfare groups who say that they set a precedent that will eventually lead to large-scale cloning of animals designed solely for the purpose of being tortured in the name of science. Some experts also raise the possibility that one day humans might also be cloned for such experiments for “better drug development.”
Human gene editing
China’s ethical compliance in matters like gene-editing is sketchy at best. Last year, Chinese scientist He Jiankui caused a storm in the international scientific community when it was revealed that he had edited the genes of two babies. The parents of the children had tested positive for HIV. According to Jiankui, he altered the DNA of the babies so that they would not contract HIV.
He was soon accused of having broken the moral boundaries of science and the Chinese government is believed to have put him under house arrest, following a widespread international uproar.
“If I were to handle the matter, I would never tell [the twins] they’ve been gene-edited and allow them to live their lives like normal people… I think that’s for the best… Once the gate of gene-editing is wide open, the human race will be finished… The technology is strong, but the terrifying fact is that anyone slightly trained in a lab can perform it,” Shao Feng, Deputy Director of the National Institute of Biological Sciences, said in a statement (South China Morning Post).
An investigation into the matter found that Jiankui had defied government bans and used fake ethical review certificates for the experiment. He is expected to receive strict punishment for the crimes, with the possibility of being sentenced to death. The babies are under medical observation to determine if they end up developing any side effects as a result of the gene editing.
The instances of cloned monkeys and gene edited babies is a sign that the Chinese government does not have a strong hold on the moral aspect of scientific development in the country. Given that the ruling regime is intensely focused on maintaining power with little concern for human or animal rights, it is possible that many more such experiments might be underway in unknown facilities in China.