A group of Chinese scientists has raised another medical ethics debate after performing an experiment where they put human genes in monkey brains in an effort to gain insight into the complex evolution of human intelligence.
The experiment, which was conducted at the Kunming Institute of Zoology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences with the help of U.S. researchers at the University of North Carolina, involves inserting a human version of Microcephalin (MCPH1), a gene that is believed to play a role in the development of human brains, into the brains of 11 rhesus monkeys, according to AFP.
In their research, scientists discovered that the monkeys’ brains, which is similar to those of humans, take longer to develop. More importantly, the monkeys with human Microcephalin performed better in short-term memory tests and reaction time compared to wild monkeys.
The monkeys’ brains, though, did not grow bigger than the control group, and the test later drew ethical concerns and comparison to the famous Hollywood movie franchise “Planet of the Apes.”
“Our findings demonstrated that transgenic non-human primates (excluding ape species) have the potential to provide important – and potentially unique – insights into basic questions of what actually makes humans unique,” the authors of the study, which was published last month in Beijing-based scientific journal National Science Review, wrote.
These monkeys were put in a series of tests including remembering colors and shapes on a screen, and were also subjected to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans, but unfortunately, only five of the 11 rhesus monkeys made it out alive during the testing phase.
While rhesus monkeys are genetically closer to humans than rodents, authors of the study said that they are still distant enough to alleviate ethical concerns; however, this doesn’t stop people from questioning the ethics of this experiment.
“You just go to the Planet of the Apes immediately in the popular imagination,” bioethicist at University of Colorado, Jacqueline Glover, said while speaking to MIT Technology Review via AFP. “To humanize them is to cause harm. Where would they live and what would they do? Do not create a being that can’t have a meaningful life in any context.”
Larry Baum, who is a researcher at Hong Kong University’s Centre for Genomic Sciences, meanwhile, downplays the comparison made of the study to the science fiction franchise.
“The genome of rhesus monkeys differs from ours by a few per cent. That’s millions of individual DNA bases differing between humans and monkeys,” Baum said. “This study changed a few of those in just one of about 20,000 genes. You can decide for yourself whether there is anything to worry about.”
This isn’t actually the first time something controversial has come up in the scientific field in China. Late last year, a Chinese scientist He Jiankui made the headlines after he made a controversial announcement when he successfully gene-edited twin girls born in November.