Urgent challenge for bioethics

Monkey business: Creation of gene-modified primate raises medical hope, human quandary.

January 16, 2001

WITH THEIR creation of the world's first genetically modified monkey, Oregon scientists may have opened the door to rapid breakthroughs in the treatment of human diseases.

Despite skepticism that the technique could go further to include human participation in such experiments, the discovery also opens the door to urgent discussion of its ethical implications.

Can the technique, if perfected, be used on humans? If monkey embryos can be altered to produce a desired genetic trait, why not humans? Should genes from other species -- the Oregon monkey received a telltale gene from a jellyfish -- be transplanted in people?

Those issues must be sorted out. The importance of such bioethical questions has been greatly magnified by the decoding of the human genetic map last year, the discovery of miracle stem cells in 1998 and the cloning of the sheep Dolly in 1996.

Scientists from Oregon Health Sciences University, who engineered the rhesus monkey with a jellyfish fluorescent marker in its fingers and toenails, say their work does not advance the prospect of genetic modification of humans.

Rather, their goal is to breed lab monkeys with genes that are known to trigger human diseases, such as breast cancer, Alzheimer's, HIV, Parkinson's and diabetes.

Monkeys are biologically closer to humans than mice, which have been used with limited success in modified-gene research for 25 years. Designer primates could lead to quicker, better answers to certain diseases vulnerable to cell- and gene-based therapies.

But serious limitations exist: The virus used to insert the jellyfish gene in the monkey embryo is unpredictable, the alien gene may not be strong or be transmitted to future generations and most human genetic diseases result from missing or altered (not introduced) genes.

Further research will overcome these technical hurdles even more swiftly than the bioethical questions raised by this genetic engineering can be resolved. With transgenetic rabbits created as "art objects," with babies conceived to provide genetic material to save a sibling, that ethical challenge is an obvious priority.

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