Cloned monkeys Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua at the non-human primate facility at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai. Photo: China Daily / Reuters
Cloned monkeys Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua at the non-human primate facility at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai. Photo: China Daily / Reuters

They look cute and cuddly, with big dark eyes, tufty hair and curly tails. But Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua are not your typical macaque monkeys. They are clones.

In a major breakthrough, Chinese scientists have used the same technique which created Dolly the sheep more than 20 years ago. They have also reopened the highly controversial debate on the issue of human cloning.

“Humans are primates. So, [for] the cloning of primate species, including humans, the technical barrier is now broken,” Dr. Muming Poo, who helped supervise the macaque monkey program at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute in Shanghai, told the media in a conference call earlier this week.

Naturally, his comments have prompted a heated debate in the scientific world, which is reminiscent of the ethical arguments put forward after Dolly the sheep was “born” in an Edinburgh laboratory in Scotland.

The groundbreaking research, known as somatic cell nuclear transfer or SCNT, was pioneered in the United Kingdom in 1996 and triggered front-page headlines across the world.

“Cloning is a horror show,” Dr. Julia Baines, a science policy adviser at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, in the UK, told the Daily Mail newspaper.

“A waste of lives, time and money – and the suffering that such experiments cause is unimaginable. Because cloning has a failure rate of at least 90%, these two monkeys represent misery and death on an enormous scale.”

Embryo splitting

Technically, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua are not the first primates to be cloned. A rhesus macaque named Tetra was created through an “embryo splitting” process in 1999 at the Oregon National Primate Research Center.

But the Chinese monkeys are the first using SCNT. This involves transferring the nucleus of a cell, which includes its DNA, into an egg which has had its nucleus removed.

“The reason … we broke this barrier was to produce animal models that are useful for medicine, for human health,” Poo said. “There is no intention to apply this method to humans.”

Still, the research has again highlighted China’s increasing role in biosciences, illustrated by Beijing’s massive push to increase funding on research and development.

Latest figures show that the world’s second-largest economy is spending about US$375 billion on R&D, which is roughly 75% of the United States’ budget.

“This is a significant worldwide breakthrough completed by China independently,” Bai Chunli, the head of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute, told the media. “It indicates that [we have] become a leading player in the life science field.”

But this has not come about by “accident”. The influential European think tank, Bruegel, which specializes in economics and is based in Brussels, set out a paper on the rise of R&D in China and the country’s ambitious plans.

Heavy state investment and planning in an array of industries, including bioscience, have been the driving force in the development program, Reinhilde Veugelers, a senior fellow at Bruegel, pointed out.

“China’s rise in science and technology [S&T] is not an accident,” said Veugelers, who is a professor at the Katholieke University Leuven, or KULeuven, in Belgium. “Successive Chinese leaderships have seen S&T as integral to economic growth and have consequently taken steps to develop the country’s S&T-related infrastructure.

“[The nation’s] National Medium- and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology Development is an ambitious plan to transform the Chinese economy into a major center of innovation by the year 2020, and to make it the global leader in science and innovation by 2050,” she added.

Research in cloning is a small step along that road and a contentious one. On Wednesday, a paper co-written by Poo was published in the respected journal Cell. It outlined how his team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute succeeded after 78 failed attempts.

Poo reiterated that guidelines for animal research, set by the US National Institutes of Health, were strictly followed. But he also called for discussions on what should, or should not, be considered acceptable practices in primate cloning.

“For drug and other lab tests, scientists have to purchase monkeys from all over the world, which is costly, bad for the environment and produces inaccurate results because each monkey might have different genes,” he said.

Change genes

“By cloning a monkey using somatic cells, we can mass cultivate a large number of genetically identical offspring in a short amount of time, and we can even change their genes to suit our needs,” Poo added.

Many believe this is simply pushing the ethical boundaries to breaking point. In 2015, Chinese scientists at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou caused an uproar when carrying out the first experiment to edit the DNA of human embryos even though similar work had been carried out in the US.

“We are very aware that future research using non-human primates anywhere in the world depends on scientists following very strict ethical standards,” Poo said.

Yet the technique honed in the process is not without its critics, although fears that this could lead to human cloning have been dismissed as science fiction.

Concerns remain, though, despite the views of Robin Lovell-Badge, an expert in the field at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “It [is] a very inefficient and hazardous procedure,” Lovell-Badge, who was not involved in the Chinese research program, told the British media.

“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,” he said.

Maybe, but it has brought the possibility of “replicants” a few strings of DNA closer.

Read: A brave new world or a Matrix-inspired nightmare?

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