A scientific breakthrough of sorts has emerged at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, last seen curing Alzheimers in mice. On a quest to unravel the mysteries of autism, Chinese scientists have genetically engineered more than a dozen monkeys with a gene error that causes mental retardation and autism in human children.
The Chinese team is investigating Rett Syndrome, caused by the existence of excessive copies of the MECP2 gene. By using a virus to insert copies of the gene in monkey eggs during fertilisation, scientists believe they’ve replicated the condition in their batch of monkeys.
According to the MIT Technology Review, neuroscientist Zilong Qiu reported that the monkeys created shared such symptoms as repetitive circling, avoiding interaction with others of its kind and making aggravated vocalizations in response to eye contact with humans.
In addition, two of the monkeys reportedly grew “severely sick” in a way that “echoed” the conditions of autistic human children.
Qiu revealed that the institute chose to test the animals because — unlike the more popular choice of mice — monkeys have prefrontal cortexes, meaning that the team has produced similar enough behavior to autistic human patients to be viable.
But Huda Zoghbi from the Baylor College of Medicine isn’t so optimistic, pointing out that the autistic monkeys’ symptoms don’t mirror those of humans closely enough to be a viable model.
Case in point, seizures have been absent in the monkeys, and their circling quirk isn’t actually seen with humans. “For the sake of the field and the families it is important that we study models that are constructed to genetically mimic what happens in humans and that reproduce features of the syndrome as closely as possible,” Zoghbi insisted.
Meanwhile, ethical concerns abound as ever, but the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative in New York insists on the animal testing. “There is a sentiment that you are never going to generate enough animals to be able to do the really important experiments. But a lot of people feel extraordinarily strongly that rodents aren’t good enough. I would say the smartest minds in the field say we have got to do this,” said deputy scientific director John Spiro.
The Shanghai team will be plowing on, with plans next to test erasing the gene error, using such new genome-editing technologies as CRISPR.