The need for monkey cloning requires careful consideration

25 January 2018
Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai have cloned two genetically identical long-tailed macaques, the first primate clones made using the technique of somatic cell nuclear transfer. 

This method of cloning involves scientists first removing the nuclear DNA from an egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus from differentiated body cells. This was the technique that was used to clone Dolly the sheep over 20 years ago.

The technical milestone, presented January 24 in the journal Cell, makes it a realistic possibility for labs to study diseases on populations of genetically uniform monkeys.

Primates share approximately 98% identity with the human genome and many anatomical, physiological, and behavioural similarities. For this reason, primates are critical to biomedical research targeting the causes, progression, prevention, and treatment of a wide variety of diseases.

The researchers plan to continue improving the technique, which will also benefit from future work in other labs, and monitoring the monkeys for their physical and intellectual development. The babies are currently bottle fed and are growing normally compared to monkeys their age. The group is also expecting more macaque clones to be born over the coming months.

The lab is following strict international guidelines for animal research set by the US National Institutes of Health, but researchers and co-supervisors Sun and Poo encourage the scientific community to discuss what should or should not be acceptable practices when it comes to cloning of non-human primates. "We are very aware that future research using non-human primates anywhere in the world depends on scientists following very strict ethical standards," Poo says.

Sun and Poo also stated that they have no intention of applying this method to humans. Indeed, it is illegal to clone a human using somatic cell nuclear transfer in Australia and in many countries.

Commenting on this announcement, Associate Professor James Bourne, Group Leader and NHMRC Senior Fellow at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University, said "Non-human primate research remains vital to the continuation of medical research and advances in human health. Therefore, further work needs to be undertaken in order to understand the benefit of this approach, and the ethical implications of its use carefully considered to ensure that it is only employed when no other alternative model is available."

All animal research in Australia is conducted under the strictest scrutiny and follows the principles of reduction, refinement and replacement known as the 3Rs. Under these principles, animal-based research is only approved by a qualified animal ethics committee, which includes members of the lay public, welfare organisations and veterinarians. 

A/Prof Bourne also stated, “Non-human primates are used only in exceptional circumstances – when necessary and when finding an answer cannot simply be provided by another animal model, cell-based system, computer modelling or human experimentation”.

Associate Professor James Bourne is a Chief Investigator with Stem Cell Australia. 

For more information: 
Read the journal article.
Watch the ABC News interview with Associate Professor James Bourne

Media Coverage:
Nature, 24 January 2018
CNN, 24 January 2018
New Scientist, 24 January 2018
scimex, 25 January 2018
ABC News, 25 January 2018