No, we won’t be seeing designer babies anytime soon. But scientists have successfully cloned monkeys for the first time, establishing a technique that could be used to create better disease models using primates, the closest animals to humans.

These cloned monkeys, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, are alive and well in China. They were created using the same technology (somatic cell nuclear transfer) used to make the first ever cloned mammal, Dolly the Sheep, over 20 years ago. This technique works by taking the nucleus out of an egg, replacing it with the nucleus from a body (somatic) cell, like a skin cell, and reprogramming the new combined cell to develop as a normal embryo. Many clones can be made because there is virtually an unlimited supply of body cells. Even though it’s the best cloning technique so far, it still isn’t very efficient; only 2 baby monkeys were born from 79 embryos.

Ultimately, this cloning technique could be combined with gene editing technologies, such as CRISPR/Cas9, to alter the clones and make specific genetic changes to better study diseases. “Designer babies may have to stick to the cinema and science fiction, but the reality is that advances in technologies such as [this] may soon provide new models and treatments that address an array of diseases,” comments Garrett Dunlap, a Ph.D. student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program at Harvard University, who was not involved in this study.

Even though this technique could technically be applied to humans, it would not be supported due to ethical issues. Mu-ming Poo, a scientist involved with this study, said “our research purpose is entirely for producing non-human primate models for human disease; we absolutely have no intention, and society will not permit, this work to be extended to humans.”

Christopher Bakerlee, a Ph.D. student in the Molecules, Cells and Organisms program at Harvard University not involved in this study, also noted the need for executing primate studies carefully: “If successfully replicated by other labs, the cloning procedures outlined here could lead to a better understanding of primate genetics. Of course, such research should be conducted with significant oversight to prevent undue exploitation of the monkeys.”


Acknowledgements: Thank you to Garrett Dunlap, a Biological and Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. student at Harvard, and Christopher Bakerlee, a Molecules, Cells and Organisms Ph.D. student at Harvard, for their commentary on the significance and implications of this study.

Managing Correspondent: Chelsea Weidman

Press Articles: These monkey twins are the first primate clones made by the method that developed Dolly. Science.

Monkeys Cloned by Dolly-the-Sheep Technology. The Scientist.

Baby macaques are the first primates to be cloned like Dolly the Sheep. ScienceNews.

Original Journal Article: Cloning of Macaque Monkeys by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. Cell.

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