In January, we reported on a controversial video featuring five newborn monkeys, all of which are clones of a single monkey genetically engineered with CRISPR to cause problems with its circadian rhythms. The monkey clones are clearly not well, exhibiting signs of anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia-like behaviors.
Some in the scientific community questioned whether the research was ethical, and now the lead scientist behind the study is defending his work — which he suggests will cost fewer monkeys their lives than standard research methods.
Cloning and CRISPR
In a new interview with New Scientist, Hung-Chun Chang of the Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai notes that cynomolgus monkeys, the kind used for his team’s study, are the most commonly used primate model for research. It’s legal everywhere in the world, he said, to edit the species’ genes.
Given those two points, researchers might actually be able to subject far fewer monkeys to testing if they can reliably gene edit and then clone them.
“Every year, thousands of monkeys are subject to drug testing,” Chang told New Scientist. “And because of the genetic variations among individuals, we need to repeat the testing in many monkeys for meaningful results. That’s why we chose to do cloning: with completely identical monkeys, we can use fewer of them.”
If the scientific community is going to agree that testing on these monkeys is ethical, there is some logic behind the idea of gene-editing and cloning the animals to be identical models for specific tests.
However, a key part of that will be ensuring we can effectively edit and clone the animals, and we might not be there yet. Dozens of surrogate mothers underwent embryo implantations as part of Chang’s team’s research, but of the 16 that became pregnant, only five monkeys were born.
We’re going to need to answer many tough questions along the path to a future in which CRISPR helps humanity eradicate disease, end hunger, or even colonize the universe — and whether or not the failures preceding the creation of these five monkeys crossed the ethical line is one of them.