It’s the fourth day of the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas – a showcase and forum for the global tech elite.
Is China one step closer to cloning humans?
To mark the occasion, Inkstone is starting a series looking at cutting-edge technology being developed by Chinese scientists.
These range from the search for alien life to work to build an “unhackable” internet.
Today we focus on an advance which may move us a step closer to cloning humans – with all the ethical questions it raises.
Earlier this year, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai announced that they had cloned two long-tailed macaques named Hua Hua and Zhong Zhong, following years of research into a cloning technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer.
Although the science itself is not new – the first cloned animal, Dolly the Sheep, was born in Scotland more than 20 years ago – this was the first time the technology had been refined to clone primates.
Until now, the technique had been used to clone more than 20 different animal species, including dogs, pigs and cats, but primates had been tricky.
“The barrier has been broken by this work,” said Pu Muming, a member of the research team who co-authored a study reporting the breakthrough in the journal Cell.
The news raises ethical questions: how close are scientists to cloning humans?
Pu conceded that, in principle, the technology could be used to do this, but said his team’s focus was on cloning for medical research.
Monkeys are commonly used for medical research on brain diseases like Parkinson’s, cancer, immune disorders and metabolic disorders.
One day, cloning techniques might be used to create large populations of genetically identical monkeys that could be used for medical research.
Scientists could then avoid testing on monkeys from the wild. “In the United States alone, they are importing 30,000 to 40,000 monkeys each year by drug companies,” Pu said.
The cloning process involves removing the nucleus from a healthy egg and replacing it with another nucleus from another type of body cell.
“We tried several different methods, but only one worked,” said senior author Sun Qiang, who is director of the Non-human Primate Research Facility at the Institute. “There was much failure before we found a way to successfully clone a monkey.”
Clones made using adult donor cells died within hours of birth, but when the team used cells from fetal connective tissue, they made a breakthrough.
Other monkeys have been cloned in the past, using a different and simpler technique called embryo splitting, which mimics how twins arise naturally.
Embryo splitting can produce a maximum of four clones at a time, while the new technique could clone far more.
However, the fact that only two babies survived out of 79 cloned embryos indicates that the scientists still have a long way to go.