CHINESE and US scientists have teamed up to breed genetically modified monkeys, giving them the mental illness autism and human-like symptoms.
It is the first time a second generation of mutant monkeys has been bred from the sperm of monkeys who had their DNA altered as embryos.
The first generation of beasts produced by the new study, a new paper reveals, had severe repetitive behaviors, problems with sleep, movement and social skills.
Some of the crazed animals flipped around in their cages and others repeatedly bit the cage bars or lick their fingers – resembling some Autistic people.
Others were poor at initiating contact with other animals introduced to their cages and displayed learning impairments, meaning they were poorer at completing tasks to get treats.
The experts used a gene editing technology called CRISPR to give the primates a Shank3 mutation, which is known to cause a form of Autism Spectrum Disorders.
The behavioral traits and brain-activity patterns displayed by the DNA-modified animals were very similar to those in humans with autism.
Sleep problems, for example, are common in human suffering from autism and the mutant monkeys were also found to be less active than normal monkeys.
“Recent advances in gene editing have enabled the creation of genetically engineered non-human-primate models”
The paper, in science journal Nature
Robert Desimone, an author of the research paper, said: “While [past]mouse research remains very important, we believe primate genetic models will help us to develop better medicines and possibly even gene therapies for some severe forms of autism.”
The research was done by teams from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with the aims of understanding and treating the human condition.
Professor Desimone, who is also the director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, added: “We urgently need new treatment options for autism spectrum disorder, and treatments developed in mice have so far been disappointing.”
The paper, published this week in the jurnal Nature, says: “Recent advances in gene editing have enabled the creation of genetically engineered non-human-primate models, which might better approximate the behavioural and neural phenotypes of autism spectrum disorder than do rodent models, and may lead to more effective treatments.”
It adds: “The founder mutants exhibited sleep disturbances, motor deficits and increased repetitive behaviours, as well as social and learning impairments.”
Whilst some parts of the mutant monkey’s brains appeared less developed, others showed “enhanced connectivity,” the scientists say.
Some humans with autism show similar connectivity patterns and autistic people are known to be very skilled in some areas.
“[The study reveals] a lot of very nice correspondence with what you see in people with SHANK3 mutations,” says Michael Platt, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study
“I think that’s really very compelling that you see so many different features disrupted.”
Earlier this year, Chinese scientists caused controversy by putting human DNA into monkeys and managing to successfully increase their intelligence.
The experiment was called “nightmarish” and “dangerous” by some experts and the earlier cloning of monkeys in China has left the animals displaying signs of schizophrenia, some experts said.
Top scientists, including University of Colorado bioethicist Jacqueline Glover, slammed the research of trying to “humanize” the beasts and possibly “cause harm.”
Thomas Hartung, a Professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Daily Star Online the smarter monkeys could be harmed and “the possible gain of knowledge has been properly vested against the suffering imposed.”
He added: “Recent technological advances, often referred to as CRISPR-Cas9, have made it easier and faster to change the genome of animals and in principle also humans.
“While before, it was mainly mice and it took years, now it is tempting for many researchers to manipulate the genome of other laboratory animals.”