Guess who’s next? All it takes is a cultural shift and the stroke of a legislator’s pen.
Ian Sample, The Guardian
May 27, 2009
Controversial work paves way for scientists to breed primates that are born with the genetic faults responsible for human conditions such as Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease
Genetically modified monkeys that glow in ultraviolet light and pass the trait on to their young have been created by scientists in Japan in controversial research that “raises the stakes” over animals rights.
The work paves the way for scientists to breed large populations of primates with genetic faults responsible for incurable human conditions, but could also spark an ethical backlash for introducing harmful genes into the primate population.
Researchers hailed the feat as a major step towards understanding the development of inherited diseases, such as Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease, from the cradle to the grave. But the work is likely to dismay animal rights groups as it could lead to a rise in the number of primates used in research labs.
The work also raises the possibility of genetically modifying humans, although such work is outlawed in most countries, including Britain.
In a proof of principle experiment, Erika Sasaki and her team at the Central Institute for Experimental Animals in Kawasaki, Japan, added a gene to marmoset embryos that made them glow green under ultraviolet light. The embryos were transferred into surrogate females, which led to five live births.
All of the newborn monkeys carried the green gene somewhere in their bodies, and two were able to pass the gene on to their own offspring. In April, a male GM marmoset was born using sperm from one of the monkeys, called Kou, and two more glowing marmosets have been born since. One died after being bitten by its mother.
All the monkeys are healthy and do not glow under normal lighting conditions.
The scientists now plan to create families of monkeys that develop neurodegenerative diseases similar to those seen in humans.
“Our method for producing transgenic primates promises to be a powerful tool for studying the mechanisms of human diseases and developing new therapies,” the authors write in the journal Nature.
An editorial accompanying the study, however, warned that it “promises to raise the stakes in the long-standing controversy over animal rights”, by “intentionally introducing a harmful gene into the primate gene pool”.
Scientists commonly use GM mice to learn about human diseases, but in some cases recreating diseases in primates will be more informative.
“This is potentially very exciting for the future of research into the causes of Parkinson’s disease,” said Kieran Breen at the Parkinson’s Disease Society. “Because non-human primates are much closer to humans than mice, the successful creation of transgenic marmosets means that we will have a new animal model to work with.”
There are major hurdles ahead, however. Scientists still need to prove that the technology can recreate human diseases in GM monkeys, and that they are more effective models than other animals. In addition, a European directive on the use of animals in research may prohibit the technique by blocking the use of primates in basic research.
“It is too early to tell whether it will lead to a rise in the use of monkeys,” said Vicky Robinson, chief executive of NC3Rs, an organisation that campaigns for the reduced use of animals in research.
“We cannot assume that a transgenic marmoset will be better for disease research than, for example, a transgenic mouse,” she said. “Any researcher proposing to take this approach will need to demonstrate that the added scientific value of using a monkey outweighs the significant ethical considerations that accompany their use. This is true whether the monkey is transgenic or not, but the genetic transformation can raise additional welfare concerns.”
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