Chinese Researchers Raise Ethical Questions After Cloning Genetically Engineered Monkeys
In what sounds like a recipe for a viral apocalypse, scientists at Shanghai's Institute of Neuroscience have successfully cloned a batch of five macaque monkeys who were gene-edited to have altered circadian rhythms. The Institute reported that the original monkey embryos underwent CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to disable the BMAL1 gene, which controls certain aspects of sleep functioning. According to the Institute, the monkeys exhibited an array of phenotypical behaviors associated with circadian disorders, including "dampened circadian cycling of blood hormones, increased anxiety and depression, as well as schizophrenia-like behaviors." To conceptualize this, think about the last time you stayed up for more than 48 hours and how you felt. Now imagine feeling and acting like that every single day.
As is the case with controversial research, the scientists behind the experiment assure critics it's all for a greater good: human health. "Disorder of circadian rhythm could lead to many human diseases, including sleep disorders, diabetic mellitus, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases," said Senior investigator Hung-Chun Chang. "Our BMAL1-knock out monkeys thus could be used to study the disease pathogenesis as well as therapeutic treatments." To augment the "greater good" assertions, Chang's colleague Mu-Ming Poo, who co-authored both the CRISPR and the cloning studies, added that with clones, fewer monkeys would be needed for research. "Without the interference of genetic background," Poo stated, "a much smaller number of cloned monkeys carrying disease phenotypes may be sufficient for pre-clinical tests of the efficacy of therapeutics."
Nature reports that at least some of their American counterparts are treating the news with scientific detachment. "This certainly is a research tool that is unexplored and there may be many possibilities for innovative uses," Penn University's Mitchell Lazar, a scientist studying metabolic disease, told Nature. Not all scientists are greeting the announcement with open arms, however. When interviewed by Gizmodo, Carolyn Neuhaus, a bioethicist at The Hastings Center took a different position. "It's very clear that these monkeys are seen as tools," she said.