The success of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua raises questions about the possibility of human cloning in the future.
Two identical macaque monkeys, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, are the first primates to be cloned using the single cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) technique — the same process that created the famous Dolly the Sheep back in 1996.
Their names are derived from the Chinese adjective Zhonghua, which means Chinese nation or people.
The two baby monkeys, born in a laboratory in China eight and six weeks ago, respectively, are perfect genetic clones of each other. The technique used to clone them involves transferring cell nucleus DNA to a donated egg cell, which then develops into an embryo.
According to The Independent, the two monkeys were only one of 79 other cloning attempts using several different techniques. While there was some success with those other attempts, the monkeys born as a result of those attempts were only able to survive for a few days.
But the success of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua raises questions about the possibility of human cloning in the future, and the ethical and legal issues involved, since the primates share so much genetic makeup with humans.
At the moment, scientists hope the genetically identical monkeys will be useful for scientific research. “This will generate real models not just for genetically based brain diseases, but also cancer, immune or metabolic disorders, and allow us to test the efficacy of the drugs for these conditions before clinical use,” said Dr Qiang Sun, the Chinese scientist who led the team that produced the research, in a statement.
The lab is following strict international guidelines for animal research set by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Study co-author Doctor Muming Poo also said in a statement: “We are very aware that future research using non-human primates anywhere in the world depends on scientists following very strict ethical standards.”
Robin Lovell-Badge from the stem cell biology and developmental genetics laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute also told The Independent that the research is too new to tell if it will have any effect on human cloning.
“Because they are non-human primates, macaques are obviously evolutionary much closer to humans than other animals typically used in research, and the aim of the work was to use the cloning methods to allow production of genetically identical macaques to use in biomedical research,” he said.
“The work in this paper is not a stepping stone to establishing methods for obtaining live born human clones. This clearly remains a very foolish thing to attempt, it would be far too inefficient, far too unsafe, and it is also pointless. Clones may be genetically identical, but we are far from only being a product of our genes.”
Dolly the sheep, famously known as the first mammal cloned from this technique, died in 2003 from lung disease and severe arthritis. In 2016, scientists concluded that Dolly’s deteriorating health was not due to cloning, as it was originally speculated in 2003, as reported by The New York Times.
Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua are reportedly developing very well and the scientists are planning to clone more monkeys in the next few months.