This headline, a few hours old, is making the rounds today: First Primate Clones Produced Using the “Dolly” Method.

Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua (named after Zhonghua, 中华, a formal name for China) were recently born in Shanghai, created through a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer. Primates have been cloned before, but the successful implementation of this method is significant because it theoretically allows scientists to clone primates in greater quantities.

This breakthrough is most immediately relevant for cancer researchers, who can test the efficacy of treatments using a control subject that is genetically identical to the test subject.

Scientists have been cloning animals since Dolly, a sheep born in 1996. In 2005, scientists at Seoul National University made the world’s first healthy cloned dog, Snuppy, and last year achieved another milestone, successfully raising three healthy Snuppy clones (the term for this is “re-clone”, evidently):

Primates have proven more tricky to successfully clone, and the birth of these identical long-tailed macaques using this method is significant for cancer research since we humans are genetically much closer to Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua than we are to any Dolly or Snuppy. One major factor holding back research in this area has been the ethical implications of cloning primates. Scientific American explains:

Primate research ethics could, however, limit such research. “It’s a cost-benefit analysis,” says Kevin Sinclair, a developmental biologist at the University of Nottingham who was not involved with the latest cloning work. “If you have a population of nonhuman primates that are genetically identical, that’s a really, really powerful model to study human disease, underlying mechanisms and potential cures. But it has to be done on a case-by-case basis to justify doing that.” Many countries, including the U.S., have strict guidelines on primate research due to ethical concerns about experimenting on our close genetic relatives. For example, U.S. government biomedical research on chimpanzees is effectively over, and all lab chimps are being slowly retired.

China’s still full-speed ahead with all that, it seems, and in other related fields as well. A report from the Wall Street Journal from earlier in the week also touches on the question of ethics in biomedical research, this time the field of gene editing:

In a hospital west of Shanghai, Wu Shixiu since March has been trying to treat cancer patients using a promising new gene-editing tool… Dr. Wu’s team at Hangzhou Cancer Hospital has been drawing blood from esophageal-cancer patients, shipping it by high-speed rail to a lab that modifies disease-fighting cells using Crispr-Cas9 by deleting a gene that interferes with the immune system’s ability to fight cancer. His team then infuses the cells back into the patients, hoping the reprogrammed DNA will destroy the disease,” the Journal reports. “China shouldn’t have been the first one to do it,” says Dr. Wu, 53, an oncologist and president of Hangzhou Cancer Hospital. “But there are fewer restrictions.”

Read the full Wall Street Journal report — “China, Unhampered by Rules, Races Ahead in Gene-Editing Trials” — right here. Strange, unsettling times to be sure, but at least we have those BGI gene-edited micropigs to lighten the mood.


How China is Leading Genetic Tech

Cover image: NBC