Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, two macaques born cloned with the Dolly method , the famous sheep that could be successfully cloned just over two decades ago, have been presented to the international community. This has happened thanks to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the macro city of Shanghai, at a decisive moment where the debate on genetic manipulation and “à la carte” is on the table. The results have been so surprising that scientists are predicting a fruitful advance in the matter.

In addition to having exceeded initial expectations and observing the normal behaviour of primates at both the physical and psychological levels, the scientists involved say that in the future they will be able to genetically modify these animals as a pilot test for a possible human genetic modification aimed at reducing hereditary diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s.

Cloning primates is now a reality

Everyone was stunned when the success of the first cloning of a mammal, the famous Dolly sheep, was announced back in 1996. This was a milestone and an exponential advance in the scientific field linked to genetics, and since then there have been attempts to work with the evolutionary branch of primates in order to demonstrate the possibility of creating creatures without malformations or deficiencies . To date, it has only been possible to clone mammal species, with a total of 23 of them.

However, a few years after the Dolly phenomenon, unsuccessful attempts were made in the United States to clone a monkey, although with different techniques. This was to emulate the division of an embryo into two to produce twins. Back in 2007, another team of American researchers cloned monkey embryos, but without them becoming viable.

The Dolly Method

As with Dolly the sheep, the method used to clone these two primates has been that of nuclear transfer from a single individual cell , taking fibroblast from the fetal tissue of a monkey. These nuclei were inserted into empty eggs and, once fertilised, were incubated by mothers until they gave birth to Zhong and Hua. They were so named because Zhonghua means “nation”.

Mu-Ming Poo, co-author of the primate research and director of the Shanghai Neuroscience Institute, warns that there are no barriers to cloning primates, so it is increasingly viable to clone humans because they share very similar genetics. At the same time, he has sought to move forward to clear up the million-dollar question: will this serve to clone humans? The primary objective at the moment is to produce non-human primates for research, with no intention of extending it to people.

Polemic and controversy

A lot of people will be reminded how dangerous “playing God” can be. For decades, human beings have gone beyond their imagination and the limits of science to achieve a priori impossible milestones, going from stepping on the moon to reproducing bionic limbs, and now the creation of human beings seems ever closer. Remember the film of Frankenstein.

It turns out that the crux of the matter does not lie in whether or not it is possible to reproduce humans genetically or to the consumer’s taste. The main goal is to develop new methods to investigate the causes of common diseases , prevent them or even cure them. The pharmaceutical industry spends huge amounts of money to produce pills that, for practical purposes, do not end the problem, but rather mitigate its symptoms. But in many cases the drugs that are tested on mice and prove to be effective, in a human being, produce no effect. The possibility of cloning at least parts of the human body could serve to make this research more reliable and valid.

Final results?

Even if the result of cloning these two primates is a real success, it is still premature to assume that it will be easy to continue doing so from now on. Of the more than 100 embryos developed and transferred with fibroblasts, only six pregnancies were achieved and only two of them were born generating healthy clones. Thus, the evidence continues to show a clear deficiency in the technique. With another test that was performed on almost 200 embryos, the results were equally poor: from 20 pregnancies only 2 were born and they died soon after.

Other experts from the western world, such as Lluís Montoliu, from the Spanish National Research Council, believes that it is not truly ethical to use this technique because of the excess of embryos used to achieve such poor results. According to Montoliu, twenty years after Dolly, the conclusions and results remain the same.