Scientists at the Institute of Neuroscience (ION) in China have reportedly used gene-editing technology to disable a certain gene vital to sleep-cycle in macaque monkeys, one of which was then cloned to produce five virtually identical specimens. This prototype could create populations of genetically identical monkeys to allow scientists to better study the mechanisms of complex human disorders.

The Centre for Primate Brain Research, to which some of the researchers belong, received government funding for the work in November 2018. Their other work has included editing a gene in the primates linked to autism in humans, and being the first organisation ever to clone primates in 2018.

The process cost around half a million dollars, and started with 325 cloned gene-edited embryos, implanted into 65 surrogate monkeys.

The advantage of cloning primates is that it reduces the need for numerous animals during certain experiment types, such as testing drug efficacy, as uncertainty of results due to genetic variation is reduced.

Ethical issues remain, however. Due to their higher levels of cognition, worries remain about cloning primates, and as research subjects mice are still infinitely cheaper and more quickly produced. However, mice are a poorer option when studying higher cognitive functions and brain disorders in humans. Mu-ming Poo, ION’s director and co-founder, noted that ION adheres to strict international guidelines on animal research, and that cloning will reduce the burden on monkeys but cutting lab usage.

In the future, the researchers are intending to create models of brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and Angelman syndrome. Because the symptoms for these diseases take time to appear, having animal models to monitor will help research the diseases thoroughly.

In the long-term the researchers are also intending to work with international researchers to create primate models of metabolic and immune-deficiency disorders and cancer which scientists can experiment on.