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Monkeys cloned by scientists in China: How far are we from cloning humans?

Meet Hua Hua and Zhong Zhong, eight week old monkeys successfully cloned by Chinese scientists.

Meet Hua Hua and Zhong Zhong, eight week old monkeys successfully cloned by Chinese scientists.

Announced on Wednesday by the Chinese Academy of Scientists in Beijing, the two baby female monkeys are the first primates cloned using the same techniques created Dolly the sheep in 1996.

This is the first time scientists clone primates using a complex method called somatic cell nuclear transfer. Previously, this technique only succeeded on animals like dogs, pigs and cats.

Image / Chinese Academy of Sciences

"The barrier of cloning primate species is now overcome," said Mu-Ming Poo of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai.

The two adorable monkeys were “born” in December, and have been bottle-feeding and growing normally.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Neuroscience said a third clone, “Meng  Meng”, is expected late this month or early February, according to Xinhua Net.

If you put “Zhong”, “Hua” and “Meng” together, “Zhong Hua Meng”, it means China dream.

Experts around the world said this is a big step in biomedicine.

"People have been trying for the past 20 plus years to do this since the birth of Dolly sheep,” Insoo Hyun of Case Western Reserves's School of Medicine bioethicist told CTV News in an interview. “But nobody has ever been able to produce live baby monkeys from this. So it's quite startling.”

Darren Griffin, a professor of genetics at the University of Kent, told CNN the research is "very impressive."

The technique is complex, and involves removing the nucleus from an egg cell and then replacing it with another nucleus from other body cells. After the reconstructed eggs produced embryos, they are put into the wombs of surrogate female monkeys, producing a group of cloned monkeys with the same genetic background.

"By cloning monkeys using somatic cells, we can mass cultivate a large number of genetically identical offspring in a short amount of time, and we can even change their genes to suit our needs," Poo said.

"This can save time, cut down experiment costs and produce more accurate results, leading to more effective medicine."

Sun Qiang, the director of the nonhuman primate research facility at the institute, said currently most drug testing is done with mice. However, since humans and mice are two different species, drugs that work on mice might not work or even have severe negative side effects for humans. Instead, since humans and primates are more closely related, testing on monkeys might be as effective as testing on humans. 

While this is a big break-through, ethical questions about technology inching closer to cloning humans arose.

While the technical barrier of cloning humans has indeed been broken, "the reason we break this barrier is to produce animal models that are helpful for medical research and human health," Poo said. “There is no intention to apply this method to humans.”

Files from Chinese Academy of Sciences, ChinaDaily, Xinhua Net, CTV News interview, and CNN.