After cloning monkeys, are humans next?
Friday, January 26, 2018
Scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai recently published a paper detailing their cloning of monkeys by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). The breakthrough research, led by Qiang Sun, raises many questions both in and out of the laboratory.
First, what makes the monkey cloning a breakthrough? After all, Dolly the Sheep was cloned with SCNT back in 1996.
In the case of these two macaques in China, this marks the first time researchers "successfully cloned primates using nonembryonic cells," according to Smithsonian.com. And that puts genetic scientists one step closer to the ability to clone humans.
The three-step process of SCNT "involves removing the nucleus from the egg cell of one individual, and replacing it with the nucleus of a differentiated body cell from another individual. The reconstructed egg, which is implanted into a third individual, develops into a clone of the individual that donated the replacement nucleus."
However, the rate of success for cloned monkeys in China makes for sober reading.
"For SCNT using fetal monkey fibroblasts, six pregnancies were confirmed in 21 surrogates and yielded two healthy babies," the paper said. "For SCNT using adult monkey cumulus cells, 22 pregnancies were confirmed in 42 surrogates and yielded two babies that were short-lived."
What does all this mean for scientific research?
"On first glance my initial thinking is that I'm not sure why cloning monkeys would be a good thing to do as a researcher," writes Professor Paul Knoepfler, Ph.D., at the UC Davis School of Medicine. "While some have speculated that cloned monkeys could have uses for genetic disease research or other kinds of studies such as in human cancer, I'm not convinced."
The Chinese team takes a more glass-half-full approach: "This study demonstrated that cloning of nonhuman primates is feasible by SCNT using fetal somatic cells, which could be efficiently modified by genetic editing and screening in vitro."
Professor Robin Feldman, director of the Institute for Innovation Law at University of California Hastings, and co-author of "Drug Wars: How Big Pharma Raises Prices and Keeps Generics off the Market," is also a cloning research skeptic, based on past efforts.
"With the new Chinese research, the strongest within one group of cloned primates lived only a few hours; the strongest within another group have been alive for roughly seven weeks," Feldman said.
With monkey cloning comes another question. How far away are we from scientists cloning living human beings, which some term "Frankensicence"?
"In theory," Knoepfler writes, "the reported epigenetic improvements (addition of the histone demethylase and the HDACi TSA, which as a scientist I find interesting) to the cloning process reported here could embolden some rogue to give that a try in humans." If the past indicates the future, if there is commercial gain in sight, investors will fund such science.
Further, national boundaries and laws shape cloning science as China and the United States have different regulatory structures in place.
"Legal restrictions on research differ in the United States," Feldman said. "For example, in the United States, the (taxpayer-supported) National Institutes of Health will not fund any use of CRISPR gene-editing techniques in human embryos. This policy was spurred, in part by other research in China."
What about the ethical questions of whether science should proceed with cloning?
"There are also special bioethical considerations with work on nonhuman primates in general," Knoepfler writes, "and when you combine that with cloning, it raises the stakes further with more questions."
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