Chinese Scientists Raise Ethical Concerns After Cloning Gene-Edited Monkeys

On Wednesday, two separate papers illustrated how a team of Chinese scientists were able to successfully clone five gene-edited monkeys, in hopes of ultimately simplifying biomedical research going forward. But as is often the case when it comes to research involving gene editing techniques, some were quick to criticize the new discovery over the ethical concerns it raised.

As detailed in a report from Gizmodo, the methodologies involved in the research started with the use of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing in order to tweak a donor macaque’s DNA and introduce a genetic disorder. The researchers then turned off a gene called BMAL1, which typically works by producing a protein that regulates a mammal’s biological rhythms. After the gene was turned off, the monkeys involved in the experiment were observed to manifest increased anxiety and depression, sleep for shorter periods of time, and exhibit some “schizophrenia-like” behaviors.

To create the five gene-edited monkey clones, the researchers moved the nuclei from the tissue cells of the donor monkey into an egg cell. This ensured that all five clones showed the same symptoms characteristic of the genetic disorder edited onto the donor’s DNA.

“Disorders of circadian rhythm could lead to many human diseases, including sleep disorders, diabetic mellitus, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases,” explained study senior author and Chinese Academy of Science Institute of Neuroscience researcher Hung-Chun Chang, as quoted on a press release published by EurekAlert.

“Our BMAL1-knock out monkeys thus could be used to study the disease pathogenesis as well as therapeutic treatments.”

As further pointed out by Gizmodo, creating cloned versions of animals could be a way for the researchers to isolate the causes of certain diseases, thereby allowing them to save some time in finding a potential cure. However, in an interview with the publication, Hastings Center bioethicist Carolyn Neuhaus commented that the scientists were essentially using the monkeys as “tools,” further opining that the research was not designed to prove or disprove a scientific theory or possible form of treatment, but rather to experiment on removing “crucial” genes.

Summarizing Neuhaus’ stand on the matter, Gizmodo wrote that she believes the research was akin to deleting a mysterious file from a computer system folder just to see what happens next.

Although Neuhaus stressed that she isn’t exactly saying scientists shouldn’t apply gene editing techniques on monkeys, she told Gizmodo that the researchers’ methodologies in their cloning of the gene-edited monkeys are likely to be questioned by ethics committees.

“If I were on an ethics review committee, I would be very hesitant to approve [this research] because of the incredible amount of harm to the animals. I would expect the scientists who are proposing this research to have very good responses to very hard questions about their methods and the expected benefits of their research.”

Despite the above concerns, a report from Reuters cited information from Chinese news agency Xinhua, which confirmed that the research was “in line” with international animal research ethics standards.