The human brain is vulnerable to a wide number of complicated ailments. Illnesses such as dementia afflict millions annually, and they’re one of the most expensive conditions to treat among wealthier countries. Naturally, much research is undertaken to look for a solution. But now, some scientists are looking forward to studying something rather novel in this pursuit.
In 2017 two baby crab-eating macaques were born at the Institute of Neuroscience of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai. But these two monkeys, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, weren’t any normal primates. Instead, they were clones; created using the same methods used to produce Dolly the sheep in Scotland in 1994.
In January 2019 the Institute of Neuroscience then made another incredible announcement. They had employed gene-editing techniques to disable a gene found in macaque monkeys which is needed for their sleeping cycle. Experts subsequently cloned one of the primates to produce five monkeys with practically identical genes. And this has scientists excited, as it could have huge implications for future research on human disorders.
According to Mu-ming Poo, the director of the Institute of Neuroscience, primates are particularly useful in researching human brain conditions. By editing the genomes of monkeys, scientists can create models of certain conditions; and this could have wide implications for understanding disorders like cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease. And scientists at the institute have had success elsewhere too; they apparently disabled a gene in monkeys which is associated with autistic behavior among humans.
Yet, of course, there are some serious questions of ethics and morality to consider within this field. Some see the purposeful creation of genetically flawed animals as inherently wrong. For instance, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) told Nature in January 2019 that the Institute of Neuroscience’s work was “a monstrous practice that causes [the monkeys] to suffer.”