CU researchers question Chinese scientists implanting human gene into monkeys' brains

22 Novembre, 2019, 22:26 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • A Rhesus macaque part of the 11 rescued monkeys from research laboratories looks on from a quarantine room in Nogent-le Phaye near Chartres

At least that appears to be the thinking among Chinese scientists who have recently created a transgenic monkey whose DNA has the human gene that is supposedly linked to the development of intelligence. Some of the monkeys that were bred in this manner exhibited improved cognitive function.

Recently, scientists from China's Kunming Institute of Zoology and the Academy of Sciences, together with U.S. researchers at the University of North Carolina have successfully implanted human brain genes into monkeys.

According to the researchers, the experiments represent the first attempt to study the genetic basis of human brain origin using transgenic monkeys. These surviving monkeys were put through a barrage of cognitive tests, including memory tests and brain scans. The results suggest that the macaques performed better on short-term memory tasks than their unmodified peers and their brains developed over a longer period of time, which is typical of human development.

MCPH1 is expressed during fetal brain development, mutations can lead to microcephaly. The monkeys "did not manifest an enlarged brain size", they reported - again underscoring that a single gene has limited effect on brain development.

Researchers showed that monkeys could be gene-edited to have similar traits.

While such scientific inquiries definitely have their merit, their ethics are controversial.

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Martin Styner of the University of North Carolina who's role in this experiment was limited to training students how to extract brain volume from MRI images says "There are a bunch of aspects of this study that you could not do in the United States, it raised issues about the type of research and whether the animals were properly cared for." .

Other voices in the scientific community, however, disagree. When we do experiments, we have to have a good understanding of what we are trying to learn, to help society, and that is not the case here. University of Colorado geneticist James Sikela said it was a "very risky road to take". "The costs are terribly high and the benefits to humanity approach zero; there's growing recognition that animal models simply don't work well to study complex human processes".

The authors of the journal wrote: "Our findings demonstrated that transgenic nonhuman primates (excluding ape species) have the potential to provide important - and potentially unique - insights into basic questions of what actually makes humans unique". Changing an animal's genome, however, is completely different in the sense that it can alter its fundamental biology. For instance, this study's small sample size means that researchers can't conclude with confidence that the introduced gene variant made the animals smarter, nor does the study tell us anything new about the MCPH1 gene.

"You just go to the Planet of the Apes immediately in the popular imagination", bioethicist at University of Colorado, Jacqueline Glover, said while speaking to MIT Technology Review via AFP. If you think this sounds like the plot of a bad sci-fi movie, that's because it does.

"To humanise them is to cause harm".

She added, "In the wild, macaques live in matrilines, centered around groups of related females with close social ties; they explore their world with intelligence and curiosity".

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