Friday, January 31, 2014

How Monkeys with Modified Genomes Could Help Fight Human Diseases


These monkeys' genomes were edited using the Crispr technique. Image: Cell, Niu et al.

In a world first, researchers in China successfully modified genes in monkeys using a precision technique. These macaques’ genomes were engineered with a precision previously unseen in primates, and the development is making waves—both among scientists searching for disease treatments, and groups opposed to animal testing.

The obvious attraction of using monkeys in this kind of application is that they resemble humans a lot closer than other lab animals, which the authors of a paper outlining the study in the journal Cell explain makes them an “important model species for studying human diseases and developing therapeutic strategies.”

In the past, “GM” monkeys have been developed to glow in the dark thanks to the insertion of a fluorescing jellyfish gene, but that was little more than a proof of concept that we can manipulate monkey genes in general.

Now, it’s all about specificity. In this new research, three particular genes in the monkeys were targeted: one that regulates metabolism, one that regulates the immune system, and one that regulates stem cells. The idea is that, in the future, we could precisely modify monkeys to recreate human diseases that are based in genetics, and then use them as models to develop new treatments.

The idea of a genetically modified monkey might sound far out, but we’ve been heading in this direction for a while. To modify the monkey embryos, the researchers used a fairly new technology called Crispr, which essentially allows scientists to really accurately edit specific genes in what's often characterised as a "cut and paste" technique. It’s a transgenic technology that makes the idea of designer babies a whole lot more feasible, for better or worse, and Technology Review reports that it's already been practiced on mice, rats, and zebrafish.

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