Chinese scientists clone monkeys - humans could be next

Zhong Zhong peeks around a stuffed toy. (Credit Qiang Sun and Mu-ming Poo  Chinese Academy of Sciences

Its main limitation is scale: embryo splitting can produce a maximum of four clones. Scientists took DNA from the nuclei of fetal monkey cells and placed genes into monkey eggs that had their own DNA extracted.

Those embryos were then destroyed for stem cell research.

The clones were born six and eight weeks ago to become the first every primates - the same order of mammals as apes and humans - to be duplicated from a non-embryonic cell.

For now, the monkeys "are ideal models for studying human diseases and developing treatments", particularly for diseases with a genetic basis such as Parkinson's, he said.

The more complex somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT)-used almost 22 years ago to create Dolly the sheep-requires researchers to remove the nucleus from an egg cell and replace it with another nucleus from differentiated body cells. After all, creating a genetically identical animal from scratch is a complicated process. Scientists used the same laboratory cloning process that created Dolly the sheep in Scotland in 1996, the researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai announced.

The Chinese team turned to previous studies that found preventing epigenetic changes to DNA - chemical modifications affecting how certain sequences are expressed - boosted the chances other cloned embryos would survive.

The feat still wasn't easy. It was also only successful in transferring nuclei from fetal cells, not adult cells such as the ones Dolly was cloned from.

Since Dolly's birth in 1996, researchers have copied almost two dozen kinds of mammals, including dogs, cats, pigs, cows and ponies, and have also created human embryos with this method.

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Sadly, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were not the first attempts at cloning with this new method, with a number of the previous clones only living for a few months after birth.

"We tried several different methods, but only one worked", senior author Qiang Sun said in a statement.

Researchers said they strictly followed the worldwide guidelines for animal research, set by U.S. National Institutes of Health. To answer this question, the scientists in China have successfully, cloned monkeys using the cloning techniques.

"The barrier of cloning primate species is now overcome", Poo said, according to The Associated Press.

During a teleconference with reporters, Poo acknowledged that the technical barrier to "the cloning of primate species, including humans ... is now broken".

Poo acknowledged the concerns, but stressed that they have no interest in cloning humans.

In other words, contrary to some accounts, human cloning has been and is being done, since the act of cloning is SCNT - not implantation, gestation, or birth.

"It remains a very inefficient and hazardous procedure", Robin Lovell-Badge, a cloning expert at the Francis Crick Institute in London, told Reuters.

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