Scientists in China on Tuesday (Jan 16) announced that they have cloned the first healthy rhesus monkey, a two-year-old named Retro, by tweaking the process that created Dolly the sheep.
Primates have proved particularly difficult to clone, and the scientists overcame years of failure by replacing the cloned cells that would become the placenta with those from a normal embryo.
They hope their new technique will lead to the creation of identical rhesus monkeys that can be experimented on for medical research.
However, outside researchers warned that the success rate for the new method was still very low, as well as raising the usual ethical questions around cloning.
Since the historic cloning of Dolly the sheep using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) in 1996, more than 20 different animals have been created using the process, including dogs, cats, pigs and cattle.
However, it was not until two decades later that scientists managed to clone the first primates using SCNT.
A pair of identical crab-eating macaques named Hua Hua and Zhong Zhong were created using SCNT in 2018 by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai.
But that breakthrough, led by the institute’s Qiang Sun, only resulted in live births in fewer than 2 per cent of attempts.
Qiang was also a senior author of the new research published in the journal Nature Communications.
He told AFP that the team had extensively researched why previous efforts to clone the rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta) had failed.
In an earlier attempt, one monkey – out of 35 implanted foetuses – was born alive, but it died in less than a day.
Qiang said that one of the “major problems” was that the placentas of cloned embryos were showing abnormalities compared to those from in vitro fertilisation.
So the researchers replaced the cells that later become the placenta, which are called the trophoblast, with those from a healthy, non-cloned embryo.
The trophoblast cells provide nutrients to a growing embryo and turn into the placenta that supplies oxygen and other life-supporting assistance to the foetus.
The technique “greatly improved the success rate of cloning by SCNT” and led to the birth of Retro, Qiang said.