Chinese scientists have implanted human brain genes into monkeys, taking another step into what has been described as the “ethical nightmare” realm of gene-editing.
In a study published last month in Beijing’s National Science Review, the journal of the state-sponsored Chinese Academy of Science, scientists inserted the human gene, MCPH1, which has been linked to brain development, into 11 monkey embryos via a virus which carried the gene into the monkeys’ brains.
Of the 11 rhesus macaque monkeys were used in the experiment, six of them died. Experiments were conducted on the remaining five.
“The use of transgenic monkeys to study human genes linked to brain evolution is a very risky road to take,” James Sikela, a geneticist who works with primates at the University of Colorado, told the MIT Technology Review.
“It is troubling that the field is steamrolling along in this manner.”
The experiment, according to the scientific team in China, was an attempt to understand the evolutionary process which led to human intelligence. The researchers believe that the MCPH1 gene may provide part of the answer.
The scientists conducted a series of tests on the transgenic monkeys, including MRI scans and memory tests, which showed that the monkeys had better short-term memory and faster reaction times than the control group. Their brains also took longer to develop, similar to that what occurs in humans.
Though the Chinese team says their findings are significant, other scientists remain highly skeptical.
Martin Styner, a computer scientist at the University of North Carolina, who is listed as a co-author in the study, told the MIT Technology Review that he was considering pulling his name from the paper. Styner’s role was limited to teaching Chinese students how to use MRI data to gather data about the volume of the brain, he said.
“When we do experiments, we have to have a good understanding of what we are trying to learn, to help society, and that is not the case here.” Styner told the MIT Technology Review.
“I don’t think that is a good direction.
“They are trying to understand brain development. And I don’t think they are getting there.”