First primates cloned in China, tech to be used to develop human medicines

Updated 2018-01-26 09:24:03

Tech to be used in study of human diseases

Chinese scientists have successfully cloned the first non-human primate, which they say will someday advance the development of medicines to cure human diseases.

The two cloned cynomolgus monkeys were born at the non-human-primate research facility under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) at the end of 2017. A third monkey is due to be born this month and more are expected this year, said scientists.

The monkeys were named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua. The combined characters in their names form "Zhonghua," meaning the Chinese nation.

The two infant monkeys - a variety of macaque, are the product of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the technique used to create Dolly the sheep over 20 years ago, in which researchers remove the nucleus from an egg cell and replace it with another nucleus from different body cells, according to a statement sent to the Global Times on Thursday.

A total of 127 oocytes, or female reproductive cells, were taken from six macaques. Seventy-nine embryos placed in the wombs of 21 surrogate female macaques, six of whom became pregnant, officials with the Institute of Neuroscience of CAS in Shanghai told a news conference on Thursday.

The monkey's DNA fingerprint showed that Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua have exactly the same gene information as the donor's cells, said Sun Qiang, director of the CAS who led a group of researchers who worked for five years to achieve the breakthrough.

The team's research was published in an article on the website of the scientific journal, Cell, which noted "genetically uniform non-human primates may help to establish animal models for biomedical research."

"The models could be used to simulate human-related diseases and do the drug screening," Sun said.

"By the end of the year we should have two to three models, but our goal is 10 times that number to realize medical application," said Muming Poo, a collaborator of the work who directs the Institute of Neuroscience and CAS Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology.

Since Dolly the sheep was successfully cloned from an adult cell in 1997, other mammals have also been cloned, but primates, which are genetically much closer to humans, have been a challenge.

International standards followed

The lab followed the strict international guidelines for animal research set by the US National Institutes of Health, but encourages 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.

In reply to concerns the technology might be used to clone humans, Poo stressed that legislation and regulation are needed to avoid such issues.

"The bottleneck of cloning primates has been broken, so in theory cloning humans could be realized. However, the purpose of this work is not to clone humans, but to serve human health," Poo said.

"We have no plan to clone humans, and the social ethics would not allow this either," Poo noted.

Well treated

Apart from China, countries including Japan, South Korea and the U.S. have also been working on cloning non-human-primates.

The scientists assured reporters that the infant monkeys and others in the laboratory are being well treated.

The monkeys' living condition meets European standards, with 10 to 15 macaques in a space of more than 20 square meters, said Sun. "The macaques have a close relationship with the veterinarians."

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