China took center stage in the debate over the ethics of genetic engineering with the revelation that scientist He Jiankui edited the genes of human embryos to make them immune to HIV.
On Thursday, it was reported that the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience (CASIN) edited the genes of monkeys to deliberately make them schizophrenic and then cloned the monkeys to create more subjects for laboratory experiments.
The report came from National Science Review, which provided extensive details of how the monkey DNA was adjusted using the same CRISPR tool employed by He Jiankui to perform his experiment on humans.
The test monkeys displayed symptoms such as “reduced sleep time, elevated night-time locomotive activities, dampened circadian cycling of blood hormones, increased anxiety and depression,” plus a number of “schizophrenia-like behaviors,” essentially because CRISPR was employed to delete the DNA information that prevents those conditions from developing in healthy monkeys.
The goal of the experiment was to produce a ready supply of monkeys with selected negative conditions so researchers could study the diseases and test medicines. This would ideally reduce the need to capture wild macaque monkeys and use them for testing. The disorders deliberately introduced into the gene-edited monkey and its clones are linked to human sleep disorders, depression, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Although Chinese media reports insist the researchers followed stringent ethical guidelines, the Economic Times of India predicted it will “raise fresh ethical concerns about gene-editing.” Australia’s ABC News noted that China remains the only country to have cloned a primate, and now it has cloned a genetically altered primate.
“Genetically modifying monkey embryos so that the resulting animals suffer from various diseases is potentially troubling. Creating exact copies of those animals to effectively build a stock of suffering animals for testing is even more creepy. But do the potential benefits of being able to develop treatments for suffering humans outweigh the negatives? That’s something that scientists are still debating, and will likely to continue to debate for a while,” tech website BGR predicted on Thursday.
One can only wonder how long it will take for someone to try genetically editing and cloning human embryos to assist with research into elusive medicines for the most severe conditions plaguing us, or before certain countries facing severe demographic crises investigate the possibility of genetically engineering and cloning a new generation of citizens to compensate for falling natural birth rates.