Late last month, scientists in China reported that they had cloned genetically-altered macaque monkeys using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer. This is the same approach that was used to create Dolly the sheep in the mid 1990s, as well as the first primate clones a year ago.
The genomes of the five baby monkeys that were produced from this cloning experiment were first edited using CRISPR technology to knock out a gene important for circadian regulation to create models of circadian sleep disorders. The researchers who conducted the study view it as a success, as the monkeys slept less and the levels of their blood hormones were modified, in addition to other negative symptoms. Other scientists and bioethicists question the appropriateness of the study, however, which came at a very high cost to the animals.
While the researchers tout the success of five baby monkeys being created in their experiment, many more animals were used in the study. Just to create the original genetically-modified monkey that was cloned in this experiment, 31 surrogate mothers were used, resulting in 10 pregnancies, eight births and two spontaneously aborted fetuses. For the cloning experiment itself, 325 embryos were created and transferred to 65 surrogate mothers, resulting in 16 pregnancies and five live births. Most of the developing fetuses failed to mature into healthy animals and were lost through miscarriage.
So the question must be asked: Just because cloning a genetically-modified primate can be done, should it? Our answer: Absolutely not.
Bioethicist Carolyn Neuhaus of The Hastings Center said, “It’s very clear that these monkeys are seen as tools.” If she were evaluating this study as part of an ethics review, she said that she would hesitate to approve it because of the “incredible harm to the animals.” In addition to the gene modification resulting in reduced sleep and modified hormones, the animals also suffered from anxiety, depression and “schizophrenia-like” behaviors.
NAVS Science Advisor Bernard Rollin, Ph.D., has long studied the ethics surrounding such activities. Dr. Rollin, who in 1995 published the book, The Frankenstein Syndrome: Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals, stresses that the true ethical concern should be “the welfare of the created animal.” He argues that “it is not morally permissible to create changes which harm the animal” and that the same ethical concern “holds true paradigmatically of the genetically-engineered defective nonhuman primates” recently created in China.
There is a significant need for the scientific community to thoroughly examine the ethics of research on non-human primates—something that our own governmental agencies failed to do when given the opportunity in September of 2016.
Given that nonhuman primate research is on the rise in the U.S., NAVS will continue to demand that a balanced group of bioethicists and scientists are convened to fully examine the ethics of research on these animals in the near future.
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