Glowing Monkey

Scientists alter monkey's genes
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post

Scientists create glowing monkey
WASHINGTON -- Pushing science to the brink of altering humans,
scientists have created the world's first genetically modified
primate -- a rhesus monkey with jellyfish DNA that glows in the dark.

The advance suggests the possibility of making customized primates for
medical research. Researchers said they hoped the technique would help
them produce monkeys with Alzheimer's disease, breast cancer and other
ailments against which new therapies or vaccines may be tested.

``There are fantastic discoveries now being made from studies of human
diseases in mice,'' said Gerald Schatten, who with Anthony W.S. Chan
led the research at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center in
Beaverton. ``We're optimistic that genetically modified primates can
translate some of those discoveries in mice safely and swiftly to
people.''

Mice have been genetically modified in labs and used for medical
research for decades, but the new research proves that scientists can
now successfully tinker with the chromosomes of a close genetic cousin
to man.

``This is a step in the direction of working with an animal that is
closer in biology to humans,'' said Dr. Phyllis Leppert at the
National Institutes of Health, which funded the research.

She said mice have their limits when scientists try to apply
experimental results to humans. Rhesus monkeys, however, share roughly
95 percent of their genes with humans, she noted.

Although the approach has proven very useful for genetic research, it
has stirred fears that similar techniques might someday be used to add
desirable traits to human embryos, heralding a new era of ``designer
babies.''

Already, many fertility clinics offer tests that allow parents to
choose embryos free of unwanted traits (such as disease genes) or
carrying desirable traits (such as a tissue type that will make the
newborn a useful organ donor for a sibling). But although some coveted
human genes have been discovered, no one has actually inserted such a
gene into a human embryo. That's because of ethical concerns -- and
because there has not been a monkey model on which to practice.

The gene-altered monkey, born in Oregon last October and described in
today's issue of the journal Science, is endowed with jellyfish genes.
The jellyfish DNA has no medical value but is a popular tool with
genetic engineers because it makes animals glow green when they're
exposed to blue light, offering quick and dramatic evidence that a
gene-transfer method works.

``What is of interest, I think, in Gerry Schatten's work, is the
possibility that one could learn about certain types of diseases in
ways that we really couldn't in humans,'' said Patricia Backlar, an
ethicist at the Oregon Health Sciences University. ``But there's also
the issue there that maybe we shouldn't do this on nonhuman
primates,'' she said. ``That's an issue. I can't resolve it for you.''

Some critics opposed to genetic modification of humankind's close
cousins are concerned about a slide down a slippery ethical slope.

``Before it was mice. Now, monkeys -- both cloned and gene-altered,''
said Eric Kleiman, research director of Defense of Animals, an
international animal advocacy group based in Mill Valley, Calif.
``It's pretty clear who is next. And it will be just as reprehensible
when people are manufactured to suit experimenters.''

Schatten said he opposed any human applications.

To engineer the monkey, Schatten's team stuffed copies of a foreign
gene into specialized viruses and injected those viruses into hundreds
of unfertilized monkey eggs.

The method is not very efficient. Of 222 gene-altered eggs, 126 grew
into embryos in laboratory dishes. Of 40 embryos that were transferred
to 20 surrogate mothers (two embryos per mother), just five
pregnancies resulted -- one of them twins. Of those six fetuses, three
were born live. And only one of those -- named ANDi, a backward
abbreviation for ``inserted DNA'' -- contained any jellyfish genes.

``This is proof of principle,'' Schatten said. ``The jury is still out
as to how or even if nonhuman primates should contribute to the
discovery of molecular medical cures.''

The New York Times and Associated Press contributed to this story.

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