Monkey Offers Hope for New Therapies, Vaccines
In a potential breakthrough that researchers hope could one day lead to "new therapies and vaccines" for several human diseases, Oregon scientists have "created the first genetically modified Washington Post reports. Led by Gerald Schatten and Anthony Chan, researchers at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center injected copies of jellyfish protein into retroviruses, and then injected the viruses into "hundreds of unfertilized monkey eggs," where the viruses inserted their genes into the eggs' DNA. After fertilization of the eggs with monkey sperm, and subsequent implantation into surrogate mothers, one monkey --named ANDi, for "inserted DNA" backwards -- with the jellyfish gene was born alive (Weiss, Washington Post, 1/12). While the implications of a successfully engineered primate remain to be seen, the scientists involved "eventually want to create genetic defects in monkeys to mimic human diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, much the way specially bred mice are used today," the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. "Our goal is to learn more about human disease," Chan said (Flam, Philadelphia Inquirer 1/12). Scientists believe that using monkeys for research holds more potential than using mice because of the closer relationship between humans and monkeys. Rhesus monkeys "share about 95% of their genes with humans," according to Dr. Phyllis Leppert of the NIH, which funded the project. "This is a step in the direction of working with an animal that is closer in biology to humans," she said (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1/12).
Despite the unique nature of ANDi's birth, Schatten called the event "an incremental step," and many scientists said much remained to be done before genetic modification in monkeys leads to any human advances, if ever. First, while the jellyfish gene was used because it "causes cells to make a protein that glows under florescent light," -- making it theoretically easier for scientists to see if the procedure has worked -- ANDi's cells are not producing the protein, even though Schatten has confirmed that the gene is present in the monkey (Kolata, New York Times, 1/12). Furthermore, until ANDi becomes sexually mature four years from now, it won't be known whether the genes are in his sperm cells, a necessity for producing offspring with the genes (Washington Post, 1/12). In addition, according to Dr. Rudolph Jaenisch, a professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "copious amounts" of the proteins are needed to transfer genes between monkeys successfully. Moreover, this genetic method will not help the study of human diseases that result from a "missing or mutated" gene. "It is very unlikely from all we know about disease that there will be any breakthrough with this," he said (New York Times, 1/12). Another problem is that many human disease genes are "too big to fit inside a retrovirus," which was used to insert the jellyfish gene into ANDi (Washington Post, 1/12).
In addition to scientific skepticism, the creation of the world's first transgenic monkey has sparked concern among ethicists who fear the possible implications of genetic engineering in humans. The Oregon team stated that it has "no interest in creating genetically engineered humans" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/12). But Professor Lori Andrews of the Chicago-Kent College of Law said, "Once you start attempting genetic engineering in monkeys, humans can't be far behind." She added that this experiment could move fertility clinics closer to selling "genetic enhancements" (New York Times, 1/12). And the Washington Post reports that the "work gives some credence to long-standing fears that scientists may one day use similar techniques to [create] ... 'designer babies'" (Washington Post, 1/12). However, other scientists said that the development would have little effect on any potential human engineering. Schatten, said the lack of proteins in ANDi "should be sobering to renegades who think of extending this to humans." In addition, Dr. Barry Zirkin, head of the division of reproductive biology at Johns Hopkins University, said retroviruses could not be used to insert genes into human DNA because they could potentially cause disease. "There may be a slippery slope somewhere, but this can't be it," he said (New York Times, 1/12). A report on the monkeys was published in today's issue of Science.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.