Monkeys and technology
On 22 January this year, Chinese scientists announced that they have cloned monkeys using the same technique that produced Dolly the sheep two decades ago. This was a big breakthrough, since it was achieved through a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) that involves transferring the nucleus of a cell, which includes its DNA, into an egg which has had its nucleus removed. While other mammals have been cloned using SCNT before, the two baby monkeys that resulted from the study made them the first primates—the mammalian order that includes monkeys, apes and humans—to be cloned from a non-embryonic cell.
Researchers have succeeded in cloning rhesus monkeys before, but by using a different technique called embryo splitting. The salient difference between the two techniques is that embryo splitting, which does not include the complex process of DNA transfer, can only produce a finite number of clones, whereas SCNT can be useful in producing large numbers of genetically modified clones for medical research.
The results of the study, led by a scientist named Mu-ming Poo, was published in the journal Cell. It described how Poo’s team produced the two cloned macaque monkeys by taking the DNA from the nuclei of foetal monkey cells and putting the genes into monkey eggs that had their own DNA removed. Poo and his colleagues then stimulated the eggs to develop into embryos and placed them into the wombs of female surrogate monkeys so that they could develop into live baby monkeys.
In press interviews after the study was released, Poo said that he felt that the results provided a great breakthrough for bio-medicine. While deftly side-stepping the fact that this important result could indeed bring up the possibility of cloning humans, which would have enormous ethical consequences, the Chinese researcher said his team’s work should be a boon to medical research by making it possible to study diseases in populations of genetically uniform monkeys.
According to animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), “Every year in the US, more than 105,000 primates are imprisoned in laboratories, where they are abused and killed in invasive, painful, and terrifying experiments. While it is well known that nonhuman primates are sensitive, intelligent beings who share many important biological and psychological characteristics with humans, these very attributes, unfortunately, make them prime targets for experimenters, who treat them as if they were disposable pieces of laboratory equipment. Primates abused in experiments are bred in government or commercial facilities, born in laboratories, or captured in the wild in countries such as China, Cambodia, and Mauritius.” Peta goes on to describe horrific methods used in “harvesting” these baby primates for medical research, both in laboratories and in the wild.
Almost on cue, four days after the Chinese scientists’ announcement, on 26 January, Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that the death of four squirrel monkeys in a nicotine addiction study had caused FDA to shut down the research and release the remaining monkeys who had survived the study into a permanent sanctuary. “It is clear the study was not consistent with the agency’s high animal welfare standards,” Gottlieb said, in the FDA statement. “These findings indicate that FDA’s animal program may need to be strengthened in some important areas.”
There have been bans before. For instance, it is now illegal to conduct tests on chimpanzees. Nonetheless, animal testing is an integral part of medical science, and advances in the treatments of diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s would not have been possible without the use of non-human primates, or NHPs. While the use of NHPs is controversial because of cruel practices, there are people who support the continued use of NHPs in laboratory tests, citing the advances in medicine that have come about by doing so. In December 2006, an inquiry chaired by Sir David Weatherall, emeritus professor of medicine at Oxford University, concluded that there is a “strong scientific and moral case” for using NHPs in some research. Testing of drugs on humans occurs only after they have been tested on NHPs for toxicity and other dangerous side effects. It seems that thus far, there has been little chance of doing away with testing on NHPs. It has been a necessary interim step before limited drug testing on humans.
However, promising new technologies have the potential to make much of the world’s current animal research obsolete. One such is the new area of science that allows for “organs on chips”. Pioneered by a firm called Emulate, this technology has the ability to mimic how a human organ functions on a chip, or more accurately, a device smaller than a human finger. If human organs could be emulated effectively, this reduces the need for using animals in testing since new drugs and treatments can directly be tried out on a surrogate for human tissue, rather than first proving safety by testing on primates, ferrets and other animals before limited testing on humans.
According to Emulate, it has created organ chips that cover the lung, liver, brain and intestines of humans by using engineering principles to recreate. Its website claims that the firm does this by employing engineering principles to recreate the micro-environment experienced by cells in the human body. The firm claims that it can control the extracellular matrix, tissue interfaces, mechanical forces, immune cells, blood components and biochemical surroundings. In April 2017, FDA announced that it would work with Emulate, especially to use the firm’s chips that mimic human liver tissue.
Meanwhile, Indian science has not been standing still. Pandorum, an Indian start-up, claims that it develops 3D printing technology to print human liver cells for medical and therapeutic research, and its vision is to be able to print entire organs.
If one day we are able to master this technology, then the cruel use of NHPs can be abolished altogether. Meanwhile, we should also abolish SCNT research that gets us closer to cloning humans.
Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has personally led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.