Chinese scientists attribute birth of cloned monkeys to funding and recent technological development
Scientists in China have created the first cloned monkey in the world, after American Labs, which used to be the forerunner in the field, pivoted to gene editing and the cloning technique that gave birth to Dolly the sheep, got “upgraded” in 2014, according to a report by thepaper.cn, a Shanghai-based news portal.

Twenty-two years after the birth of Dolly, scientists from China's national science academy published a paper in the journal Cell on January 25, pronouncing that they had used the technology of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) to clone two macaques, which they named respectively Zhongzhong and Huahua, literally meaning “China” with the two characters combined together.

Sun Qiang and Mu-Ming Poo led the lab of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Neuroscience in Shanghai that had made the breakthrough five years after they embarked on the project. Poo was quoted by the media as saying that the success would merely guarantee that China would be in a leading position for one year. And Chinese scientists not directly involved in the project agreed, noting sustaining governmental input and meaningful findings obtained by other labs have all contributed to the feat.

Ji Weizhi, a CAS academician studying non-human primate species, told thepaper.cn, “It's natural for China to harvest the fruit with (all) experiments being financed (by the government) and more focused attention put on the research compared with labs in the United States.

After the news broke, many Chinese netizens expressed skepticism, questioning on social media platforms why it is that the US, which used to lead in cloning technologies, could be outrun by China. Ji believed the main reason is that the scientific world in the US has diverted their interest to other studies like gene editing.

Initiatives to use the technology of SCNT for cloning non-human primates had died down in the US since Professor Gerald Schatten with the University of Pittsburgh claimed the technology that led to the birth of Dolly would not work in efforts to clone primates. Before reaching the conclusion, Schatten and his team spent six years, and consumed 724 ova to cultivate 33 embryos, while none of them survived.

Since Dolly was created in 1996, over 20 species of mammals were successfully cloned using the SCNT technology. According to Ji, it is not that complicated in theory. Researchers would transfer the nucleus of a somatic cell into an enucleated egg and then the egg would be implanted into a surrogate mother after the genes in the somatic cell are activated by artificial interruption.

The primary challenge for SCNT cloning is to return the highly differentiated somatic cells back to the original state. Ji explained the time-reversal-like process is called “reprogramming”. “The difficulty lies in the fact that scientists would have to work on highly differentiated somatic cells and transform them into something multi-functional like sperm.”

Lai Liangxue, a CAS researcher majoring in cloning research who had created the first gene edited cloned dog “Longlong”, told thepaper.cn, reprogramming is a quite complicated process. “To put a nucleus into an egg is like throwing a stone into the sea. We could not control the environment inside the ovum and we have no idea where the stone would have gone with the stream, let alone working on it,” explained Lai.

Sun Qiang elaborated his team has mainly confronted three challenges. One is the part to remove nucleus from egg given that nucleus could hardly be identified; second is to turn on the genes transferred into an egg with somatic cell's nucleus for kicking off a series of growth procedures; and the last, with low efficiency in growth of cloned embryos, most of them could not survive.

Sun Qiang who has never attended overseas universities once joked he and his team are kind of “rustic” compared with scientists boasting experiences of learning abroad. Besides him, the first author of the Cell paper, Dr. Liu Zhen has also gained media spotlight for his significant contribution to the team's success.

Liu is reported to have gained the expertise of removing egg's nucleus within 10 seconds and then transfer nucleus of somatic cell into egg within 15 seconds after three years' training. Poo indicated execution of the experimental procedures is quite critical for the application of SCNT technology, and sooner the process could be executed, the less damage would be done to the egg cells. According to Sun and Poo, Liu, who has never been abroad to attend universities, now has become “world champion” in the technique.

Ji concluded that the maturing of techniques was one factor, while the other one was that the team has found the right formula of chemicals to work on the nucleus of somatic cell in a bid for it to be restored to its original state.

The so-called “reprogramming” was a mission impossible for nonhuman primates' SCNT cloning, until in 2014, a lab of Harvard Medical School led by Chinese American Professor Zhang Yi dropped a bombshell by finding the “barrier” to reprogramming and adding a chemical Kdm4d to greatly increase the procedure's efficiency.

“Before the research led by Zhang Yi, many labs tried to intervene and facilitate the reprogramming procedure but they all failed to spot the key element,” indicated Lai Xueliang. Based on the breakthrough, Sun Qiang and his team identified the “right formula” which is the ideal mix of Kdm4d and TSA, another kind of chemical,” said Ji, noting this is the key finding that led to the team's success in cloning Zhongzhong and Huahua.

So, in view of Chinese scientists, the birth of SCNT cloned monkey is attributable to the development of the technology in recent years.
 
 

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