Monkeys Cloned, Overcoming Barriers to Human Cloning

Zhong Zhong peeks around a stuffed toy. (Credit Qiang Sun and Mu-ming Poo  Chinese Academy of Sciences

Zhong Zhong peeks around a stuffed toy

Chinese researchers employed the somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) technique to create two identical long-tailed macaques, who have been called Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, born eight and six weeks ago respectively, according to the journal Cell.

Of course, the team has decided against human cloning as a next step, as most mainstream scientists believe that it is unethical to do so.

The Chinese team, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience, in Shanghai, hope to produce genetically uniform animals to research human diseases.

The scientists say they followed strict global guidelines for animal research, set by the US National Institutes of Health. Instead, they want to use the technique to create genetically identical monkeys for medical research.

That's the neat and tidy version anyway - the truth is still a fair bit more messy and inefficient: it took 127 eggs to get two monkey babies, and so far the scientists have only produced healthy clones with DNA from a monkey fetus, not a fully grown adult monkey.

Chinese researchers have finally successfully cloned a primate, using the same technique Scottish researchers devised to clone the first mammal, Dolly the sheep, in the mid-1990s.

For now, the monkeys "are ideal models for studying human diseases and developing treatments", particularly for diseases with a genetic basis such as Parkinson's, he said.

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The team went through more than 400 egg cells in all, and transferred 260 embryos into monkey surrogates. In an interview with state news agency Xinhua, Sun Qiang, the lead contact for the paper, said that mass cloning of monkeys with the same genetic blueprint would become possible within the year.

The process under which the two monkeys were born is known as a somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).

Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua are rather dramatic proof that it can do just that. "It's the first primate ever to be cloned", said Dr. Leonard Zon, director of the stem cell program at Boston Children's Hospital. It's worth remembering this particular cloning technique has a massively high rate of failure; several other cloned macaques created by the same researchers only lived hours after birth.

Sadly, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were not the first attempts at cloning with this new method, with a number of the previous clones only living for a few months after birth.

"There's no reason to clone humans at this time", Poo said. And despite the achievement of Dolly the sheep, who was cloned in 1996, we haven't seen much dramatic progress in cloning.

Despite this breakthrough don't expect human cloning anytime in the near future, said bioethicist Henry Greely, a professor of law and genetics at Stanford University. Similar to how twins are born, that method can produce a maximum of four clones at a time. In 2007, researchers in OR successfully cloned embryonic stem cells from macaques.

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