Posted by Dr Katy Taylor on 4th March 2016
China breeds ‘autistic’ GM monkeys
Cruel experiment widely criticised
It’s recently emerged that scientists in China have created a GM monkey with ‘autism’.
The scientists proudly claimed that genetically engineering monkeys with a human autism gene could help them develop new drugs to treat the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders.
The researchers reported how they had bred eight macaque monkeys with an over-active human gene linked to autism. When they reached nearly one year of age the monkeys started to show signs of behavioural problems such as repetitive behaviours, increased anxiety and reduced social interaction, according to the study published in the journal Nature1.
Apparently the poor monkeys were seen to be obsessively circling, ignoring other monkeys and grunting or screaming when approached by the researchers.
The researchers claimed that this suggests the monkeys have a form of autism. Unfortunately, however, behaviours like these are common in monkeys housed in laboratories.
Autism is a complex disorder and the genetic causes are far from clear. Attempts to improve the use of monkeys to test human diseases are in our view flawed and unlikely to succeed. Whilst researchers may be able to alter one or two genes, they cannot overcome the massive differences between us and other non-human primates.
Using monkeys in this type of research is also very cruel. Several monkeys in this recent work became very ill and were killed.
Instead of developing techniques that may lead to a rise in the use of monkeys in research, scientists should be focusing their efforts on developing more human-relevant approaches.
We are very disturbed by these experiments and the suffering that lies behind them. As well as the clear behavioural distress experienced by the monkeys, many monkeys were used.
- In the first experiment, 53 embryos were transferred into 18 surrogate females. Nine became pregnant and produced eight live monkeys and four stillbirths.
- In the second experiment 105 embryos were transferred into 36 surrogate females. This time only 7 females became pregnant and gave birth to 9 monkeys; only 2 survived.
We believe that not only are these experiments cruel but they are folly. The biology underlying autism remains poorly understood. Although genetics plays a major role in autism its contribution is highly varied and still largely undefined.
Our Senior Research Scientist, Dr Jarrod Bailey summarised the genetic differences between monkeys and humans in a recent paper. He concluded that the genetic differences between humans and monkeys are so different that using monkeys in this type of work is highly questionable.
Read Jarrod’s paper.
Find out why we’re against animal testing.
1. Autism-like behaviours and germline transmission in transgenic monkeys overexpressing MeCP2. Nature doi:10.1038/nature16533