Catching up fast

Chinese scientists break new ground cloning monkeys – stirring US fears


Primate barrier: what’s next after cloning these macaques?

In the 16th century novel Journey to the West the Monkey King creates an army of clones by pulling hairs from his tail and scattering them on the battlefield.

Today in China, scientists have achieved something similar – creating two identical long-tailed macaques from a third macaque’s DNA.

Scientists working at the Key Laboratory of Primate Neurobiology near Shanghai produced the “twin” monkeys using the same technique devised to clone Dolly the sheep 20 years ago in Scotland.

Other animals such as rats, dogs and cows have since been cloned using the technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, which places the new DNA inside an “empty” donor egg.

But in 2003 scientists at the University of Pittsburgh concluded that the method probably wouldn’t work on primates. Six years of tests had failed to produce a viable embryo.

So the baton passed to China, which this week appeared to bring forward its goal of being a “world leader” in science by more than 10 years. Previously the target had been 2049 – the hundred year anniversary of the Communist Party coming to power. But the new statement published by the State Council has just called for China to “lead the world in more key fields” by 2035.

“The goal is to enhance China’s initial innovation capability and build a solid foundation for a world technology power,” it said.

The shift is not surprising as China is already nipping at the heels of the US – the world’s leader in scientific output.

The recent Scientific and Engineering Indicators Report by America’s National Science Board pointed out that Chinese spending on research and development comes to about $420 billion a year – or 21% of the global total. Only America was ahead with a 26% share of the tally.

Yet the US only increases its spend by about 4% a year while China has averaged an 18% increase for the last five years.

There has also been an explosion of technical papers, with the report noting that for the first time China has surpassed the US in term of the number of scientific papers it had published.

That said, it pointed out that numbers weren’t everything – papers from Switzerland and Sweden were still the most cited (a measure of how important the research actually is). Papers from the US ranked third and China ranked fifth after the European Union as a whole.

At the same time China has dramatically expanded its technical workforce, increasing the annual number of science and engineering graduates with bachelor’s degrees from 359,000 in 2000 to 1.65 million in 2014. According to China’s Association for Science and Technology, the country now has more than 100 million technical workers.

The US meanwhile churns out about 720,000 science and technology graduates a year, the report found, up from about 483,000 at the start of the millennium.

“The world is changing… We can’t be asleep at the wheel,” Chair of the National Science Board Maria Zuber said.

The main reason for the shift is the Communist-led government, which for the last 15 years has been actively trying to boost Chinese science.

In 2008 it introduced the so called ‘Thousand Talents’ programme to get highly skilled experts to relocate to China. It offers grants, personal bonuses and perks such as housing and healthcare.

The last two Five-Year Plans also made research and development a priority.

But when Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012 he was unimpressed. “Our country is under the control of others in core technologies in key fields, has not fundamentally changed, and the country’s science and technology foundation remains weak,” he said.

Since then science and innovation have been at the forefront of Chinese economic planning.

When he gave his new year’s speech this year, the Wechat account of the People’s Daily remarked that the bookshelves behind him contained two “newly published leading edge scientific books” on artificial intelligence (see WiC394).

In his three-hour speech to the Party Congress last October Xi said China should “aim for the frontiers of science and technology” and called on people to turn the country into a “nation of innovators”.

In the past year alone China has launched the world fastest bullet train, built the world first quantum computer, put an X-ray telescope into orbit (for studying black holes), lifted flammable ice from the seabed and created Zhongzhong and Hauhua – the two cloned monkeys.

But some developments have international scientists and philosophers worried.

Take for example the two monkeys. They were cloned to study gene-related brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and autism and to test possible treatments.

But now the so called “primate barrier” has been removed it raises the possibility that humans could be cloned too.

Then there is the issue of human head transplants. Sergio Canavero, the Italian neurosurgeon, claimed last year he is pioneering the surgery. Originally the first attempt was going to be carried out in Russia. But in November he reportedly teamed up with a Chinese medical professor and performed a full transplant on a cadaver in China.

Chinese authorities have since said they would never give permission for a live transplant, but regulations are laxer inside China which allowing science – good and bad – greater freedom.

A case in point was an article in the Wall Street Journal last month, detailing how China has quietly used the gene-editing technology Crispr-Cas9 to treat cancer in humans since 2015.

Crispr uses a bacterial protein (Cas9) to cut the DNA in a scissor-like method. Genes can then either be added or removed.

So far at least four hospitals in China have used the technology to modify cancer patients’ blood – removing a gene which negatively affects the body’s ability to fight the disease. The blood is drawn, modified and reinjected. So far at least 80 patients have been treated, the newspaper said.

Hospitals offering the therapy only have to get approval from their in-house ethics committee. Meanwhile human trials in the US, where the technology was largely developed, have been on hold for two years while the University of Pennsylvania waits for approval from the National Institutes of Health and the country’s Food and Drug Administration.

“We are at a dangerous point in losing our lead in biomedicine,” reckons Carl June, lead scientist for the Crispr research team at the University of Pennsylvania.

Interestingly Kedgene, the company behind many of the gene-editing cancer treatments in China was formed by Mandy Zhou – a US-educated Chinese national who returned home when she sensed the possibilities were greater.

Similarly one of the lead scientists on the cloned monkey project Poo Muming was raised in Taiwan, where his family moved when he was one (he was born in mainland China). The celebrated scientist spent much of his working life at Berkeley in California.

The monkey cloning project was carried out with funding from the Chinese government.

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