On the 5th of December 2017, a pair of identical macaques, a type of monkey, was born through the method of SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) in China. This was the same method that was used to create Dolly the sheep who was the first successful case of animal cloning from an adult cell. When the news came out of the successful birth of the monkeys, the world was in awe of all the possibilities that could arise from the cloning of animals; using them to model diseases, to make stem cells and for drug production. There was also a part of the world that was sceptical of the news, what could this mean for the future and possibility of human cloning and gene manipulation to create a race of perfect humans. Ethical issues are raised as well as to how far humans should be in involved in the production of new life.
Let us start of with SCNT or somatic cell nuclear transfer. This process starts with a cell containing a donor nucleus from female monkey A and this is fused with an egg from female monkey B that has been stripped of its nucleus. The resulting embryo is placed in the uterus of monkey C. Hence, the infant that is born is a clone of monkey A. This is a small part of a very large and complicated process that is SCNT, where there is a need to use enzymes that return the fused cell into an early embryonic state where it can differentiate into every cell type in the body.
This new version of SCNT is slightly different compared to when it was used for Dolly the sheep. When Dolly was created, the scientists wanted to clone cells that came from the udder of a pregnant sheep. The researchers then starved the cells for a week in order to stop them from dividing. From here onwards, the researchers followed the steps mentioned earlier apart from one small difference where gentle pulses of electricity were applied which fused the egg and the new nucleus together. After the successful implantation of the embryo into the uterus of a surrogate, Dolly was born into the world and this was witnessed by only a select few as the project was conducted with great secrecy. Sadly, Dolly the sheep was euthanised in 2003 as it had lung disease. Dolly was alive for six years but most sheep live twice as long, so questions were raised as to what went wrong in the cloning process that made Dolly age so quickly.
So how easy or hard was it to produce the pair of identical macaques? The researchers in China who conducted the experiment went through 79 embryos that were implanted into 21 surrogates, and this resulted in two babies being born. This set of experiments used cells from the foetus while another set of experiments used adult cells that resulted in 181 embryos and 42 surrogates. Again, two babies were born, but they died shortly after because of the complicated process of reprogramming genes in adult cells.
Half the world was in awe when the two baby monkeys were born while the other half raised questions over the ethics of the situation. The researchers who conducted the experiment in China have clearly stated that they have no intention of moving on to cloning humans but still the populace is sceptical towards those who do not have similar intentions. In addition, as seen in Dolly’s case, the clones of animals have shorter survival rates, so are we being inhumane by cloning animals knowing they are going to die sooner? The debate goes on.
So what purpose does cloning primates serve? One possible use is to explore how genes react in conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. These two diseases are still poorly understood to this day so with gene manipulation in clones, we can see how they interact with drugs and basically how they behave in the body in order to grasp a better understanding of the two diseases. There are also some researchers out there looking into cloning as a way to create stem cells in order to remove the danger of immune rejection. Other such purposes could include reviving endangered or extinct species, reproducing a deceased pet, cloning livestock and drug production where scientists could insert a gene into the DNA of cells that codes for a drug or a vaccine. The animal could pass the gene for example in its milk.
There is a lot of controversy and concerns over cloning, but that should not sway people away from the myriad of useful possibilities especially when it comes to understanding diseases and helping those with it. The sheer possibility of being able to clone the pair of macaques proves that there is so much good that could come out of this research. Who knows what we might come up with in the future?