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Wednesday, 17 January, 2001, 10:51 GMT
GM monkeys: Where do we draw the line?

Scientists have genetically engineered a monkey, Andi, the closest relative yet to a human to be genetically altered.

Testing on monkeys - designed to mimic humans diseases - could mean quicker results, with fewer animals having to suffer. Many see Andi as potentially one of the greatest advances in tackling human ailments.

But altering the genetic make-up of such close relatives to humans opens up all sorts of moral questions. Where do you draw the line?

Is this level of genetic modification acceptable? Are the benefits of such research clear?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

Has anyone asked the monkey?

Gerry, Scotland
Has anyone asked the monkey? I am sure with it being genetically modified it will be able to speak.
Gerry, Scotland

I realise that some people believe we are toying with nature. However, if genetic modification leads to a way in which we can conquer cancer or Aids then I am behind it. I think that most right-minded people would use this method to obtain cures if it was their loved ones who stood to gain.
Carl Gavin, S.E. Asia

This monkey was NOT simply cloned. The animal's DNA has been altered and actually contains DNA strands from jellyfish. The benefits, if they prove to be benefits, may well be the greatest scientific breakthrough of the century. We are at a junction in our own evolution that can affect our very existence. It is so worrying to have this power at our fingertips when we have yet to conquer the greed that drives and compels us to use it.
David Pringle, UK

There is limited money available to fund research projects and it should be spent on important work that does not exploit our close relatives in this way. Sometimes we use clever words to blind ourselves to basic truths that are blindingly obvious. Trust your emotions on this one - look at the monkey and accept that it is wrong to use him and his brethren for cruel and often barbaric experimentation.
Steve Dexter, UK

The anti-GM crowd call for a halt in genetic research until "we know more". How do you think we're ever going to get that knowledge without research? Only today there are announcements of new leukaemia treatments, and a cervical cancer vaccine, as direct results of long-term genetic research, and more breakthroughs are occurring every week. Calls for restraints upon legitimate scientific research should be seen for what they are - a lack of faith in science and a sentimental reverence for all things "natural".
Jason King, UK

Some diseases can be seen and when treated, the effects can also be seen. This will help us to eliminate certain diseases. Those like Alzheimer's disease are not so easy to see and therefore not so easy to see if the "cure" is having any effect. How can the latter type be treated on any animal? We need vocal feedback as to the way the patient feels. Monkeys cannot give this but they can be used to test other medicines and treatments. Why not? It is done in a laboratory under scientific/medical conditions and the result helps us poor humans.
John C, Warwick, England

There should be one world-wide supervisory body keeping tabs on security and ethical practices

Michael Gahan, Ireland

One big problem with this argument is that far too many people have seen far too many Hollywood films with genetically engineered monsters or evil clones. Grow up people, we are all living in luxuries provided by science and experimentation. Dissecting human bodies was seen as immoral before modern medical science, cloning and genetic engineering will come to be just as accepted in the future. You might ask why? Well it's because we need these advances for curing disease in humans and animals. I do however think that there should be one world-wide supervisory body keeping tabs on security and ethical practices.
Michael Gahan, Ireland

Genetic Engineering bypasses the process of natural selection, the mechanism that enables evolution. In other words, creating novelty monkeys is man thumbing his nose at nature and claiming to know best. But it is millions upon millions of years of evolution that has created the environment in which we live and upon which we depend.

Scientists and corporations are asking us to trust their understanding of what organisms are appropriate, useful and safe for release into our environment. However most of the proposed new organisms do not improve upon what already exists, merely makes it marketable by ultimately reducing diversity and choice. This leads me to suspect that those involved in genetic engineering have an extreme disrespect for natural selection and life in general. Either that or they focus entirely on the technical challenge. Either way those involved have not convinced me that their wisdom is superior to natural selection as a way of producing "new" forms of life. As long as scientists appear reckless with the environment they will worry me.
Duncan Drury, UK

Progress is a wonderful thing, but we have to ask ourselves what are the vested interests of the companies who are doing these experiments. Why is their such disease and illness today? Because of the high exposure to synthetic and toxic chemicals. Diabetes, asthma, cancer are all illness caused by what we ingest and elements with which we come into contact. The next question is - who makes the cures, side effects included, for all these illnesses? The companies who are doing all the testing, engineering, and marketing. All they are doing is creating a new potential market for their own product. Why would they want to eradicate the diseases that keep them going in the first place?
Anon, England

Andi just opens up another door in genetic engineering. Most of the same ethical, moral issues are raised as when genetic engineering was first used or when the first gene was patented, and more so because of our evolutionary proximity to Andi.
A GM monkey would be an ideal research model for human diseases, but the question is do the benefits offered far outweigh the ethical, moral and other reservations about using primates. Much of the GE use in medicine now already involves transgenic mice, sheep, bacteria, yeast etc.

Would today's GM monkey lead to designer babies of tomorrow, as some fear? Hard to say, but considering the intensity of public concerns, I am sure it will get more scrutiny as we just saw in case of human embryonic stem cell research. Concerns are quite appropriate, but trying to stop research in this area is, I am afraid, not going to be feasible.
Riz Rahim, USA

We should look before we jump head first into things we don't fully understand

Erik P, Canada

The main concern with any genetic modifications should be whether are medical sciences are up to speed enough to combat the potential unexpected occurrences. I fail to see how we as another mere species on this planet can actually be arrogant enough to think that we can do this yet. We should look before we jump head first into things we don't fully understand. Especially when there are prevailing theories like the 'butterfly effect' that would dictate this to be profoundly influential.
Erik P, Canada

I am personally in favour of certain controlled genetic experiments

Jeremy, Canada

Humans are not the only species to use other organisms for their advantage. Bacteria and viruses all infect the human body for their own means. It is unfortunate that Andi has been subjected to testing, but in every picture of him I have seen their is no evidence of bodily harm, and if this testing can save millions upon millions of people I am personally in favour of certain controlled genetic experiments.
Jeremy, Canada

To my understanding, they cloned the monkey, there is no genetically engineering involved. In other words, it's like artificially making a twin. Ladies and gentlemen, study some genetics before joining the ignorant anti-lobby.
Tom DeMan, European in the US

If tests are not conducted on animals to detect and improve versions of medication, whom shall we try on - humans?

Sean D'Souza, USA

Very interesting situation. We have problems from every possible arena and now come the GM part. The world really needs a break. Pray tell me O wise animal lovers and defenders of morality and humanity; if tests are not conducted on animals to detect and improve versions of medication, whom shall we try on - humans? Would any of the prime member of the homo sapiens community be willing to be subject to medical diagnostic tests? Surely you must be joking will be the reply. The essence of trials on test subjects like primates will only aid in curing or providing a possible solution to our ailments if not eradicate. Criticism and laws to ban these methods are only going to hamper progress and ultimately put mankind in a weak position to battle nature's new viruses and diseases.
Sean D'Souza, USA

All science involves tinkering with things we don't understand. Sometimes the results are good for us; other times they are bad. The survivors learn from the mistakes. Genetic tinkering will happen, and we will learn from our mistakes. And eventually humans will make a mistake they cannot recover from. This is called extinction. In the meantime, let the games proceed!
Tom Brucia, USA

If you wanted to destroy a country's scientific infrastructure, and drive its young and talented scientists overseas, you couldn't find a better plan than to cripple all genetic and medical research in the name of ethics. I sometimes wonder how much "activist" and "animal rights" funding comes from foreign countries that would like to scoop up talented British scientists. Silicon Valley is already awash with British exiles. Will the German and French biotech industries be the next beneficiaries of our obsession with punishing success in our own country?
Jon Livesey, USA

Just wait until it'll be a bio-engineered animal, insect or bacteria running amok in the wild

Stephen Kenney, USA

Some 40 years ago, a scientist in South America once had a genius idea of studying African "killer" bees, they said all would be safe, but the bees escaped, and now the America's from Argentina to California are under threat from this introduced scientific 'goof'. Just wait until it'll be a bio-engineered animal, insect or bacteria running amok in the wild!
Stephen Kenney, USA

I don't see how a narrowing of our gene pool can never be seen as beneficial to us. Humanity didn't survive the plague or small pox or any others through having a homogeneous population. Nor has any other species on earth ever survived through such means. Even if it is all what we deem to be the correct genes, why should we instantly consider that to be beneficial when nature, which got us this far, has never deemed that to be the appropriate course of action.
Erik P, Canada

I always worry when the Animal Rights lobby come on to be interviewed

Michael, UK

The scientist involved when interviewed clearly stated that the intention was to cure disease, not to harm animals for some vague and unspecified reason. That's fair enough. I always worry when the Animal Rights lobby come on to be interviewed. They polarise everything and always have that glazed, far away look in their eyes.
Michael, UK

As a researcher working towards a doctorate in methods to find genes, I feel there is very little understanding and much hysteria concerning this issue. Without doubt there are huge benefits to be reaped from advances in genetics, but obviously this will not come without its pitfalls. Little is understood about this technology, and before it can be of any major use we have much to understand. How are we scientists to unravel the immense complexities of the genome without being allowed to get along with our work?

The guidelines for research into all aspects of genetics should be decided upon by people who can carry the burden, who have a true comprehension of the various issues and have the requisite knowledge.
Ansar Jawaid, U.K.

My concern is more with "which" diseases will be targeted. Genetic engineering is extremely expensive and resource-consuming. Will it be used to target diseases that truly cause the most suffering? Or will it be used to cure diseases that we more or less give ourselves by living unhealthy lifestyles?
Victoria, USA

I trust all of those who find such research "morally abhorrent" shall be refusing preventative treatment for Alzheimer's, cancer etc....
Bridget, France

Why are there comparisons with Hitler the second genetics are mentioned? It seems certain words like 'nuclear' and 'genetics' carry far more meaning than they should have through misinformation by the press and general hysteria.
Genetics are a fundamental truth, the science is here to stay and should be used to cure all Human suffering if it can. Surely even if the only end product is an end to birth defects or cancer then the end justifies the means.
Simon Andrew, UK

It would be best if our children were educated far more in science and technology than religion and media studies

Tom, UK

I really don't understand why people keep saying scientists are playing God. Religion is for the dark ages, and the sooner people realise that science is the only way forward the better. Let's start acting like people of the 21st century and embrace the new and wonderful ability of science to solve a huge number of ailments and improve the lives of millions of people.
Just like transplants in the early parts of last century, the general public are naive and scared of the unknown. It would be best if our children were educated far more in science and technology than religion and media studies.
Tom, UK

Once again the scientists think they can play God and improve on natures design! We have managed to get this far without having to resort to genetic manipulation. If they start manipulating human genes what next?
Simon Kelleher, UK

It's outrageous, we seem to think that every other living species on this planet exists for our benefit alone, and does not have or warrant an existence of it's own.
Arthur Pitt, UK

Great pet, with it's glowing gene; you'd never lose it in the dark, would you?

Carl, UK

All together now, aaaah! Great pet, with it's glowing gene; you'd never lose it in the dark, would you?
But seriously - we, the human race, are developing ways of ridding ourselves of disease. There can never be too high a price to ease or stop the suffering of the millions of people in the world that are ill, and I've yet to hear of any alternatives from the anti-genetics lobby. John B - you're wrong. How can you make such a leap from eliminating disease to a super race of 'perfect humans?' Just because no-one will have a hereditary disease does not make us all the same, neither will it encourage anti-Semite's or racists..
Carl, UK

As a Genetic student I do not see any proper links to clone a monkey to cure human (genetics related) diseases rather than work with decoded human DNA. We've adequate problems yet to be solved GM food stuffs. From today with GM animals. What about tomorrow?
Faheem Moor, Oberhausen, Germany

I really don't see what all the fuss is about. We are talking about the ability to enhance future generations - to reduce disease and even further the species. What I do find unacceptable is the knee-jerk reaction as expressed so perfectly by John B, UK.
We are talking about genetic engineering, not genocide. It is unforgivable that people use the death of 6 million people to try to reinforce an invalid point.
Jonathan King, Switzerland (Brit)

Medical research has benefited mankind for a long time, but where is it going?

Tony Pigram, UK

As John B points out, the human race has tapped into the blueprints of life, whether it was meant to or not. The tough decision now is; "What do we do with it?" We could all have eternal life - or will this be 'saved' for a select few that have the wealth to exploit such a discovery.
As for 'Andi', I feel sorry for him - he's not had much of a 'natural' life as 'nature' originally intended. Medical research has benefited mankind for a long time, but where is it going? What is it aiming for? Perfection?
Tony Pigram, UK

I find the whole thing disquieting. We have spent our existence on this planet meddling with nature and watching the consequent havoc in amazement. Thousands of species have disappeared because of our (sometimes) well-meaning yet ignorant efforts. If we have even managed to decimate our house sparrows and song thrushes without knowing why, I find it very hard to believe that we have all the answers when it comes to fiddling with life itself.
Peter Saxton, UK

It may be true that we've been striving for thousands of years to eliminate human diseases. People who are in favour of genetic modification claim that if we can eliminate human diseases by attacking the "errors" in our "blueprint", then we have to make sure we attack those errors. The question is how do we draw the line in identifying an error.
Chitra, San Jose, USA

As a scientist, I am very much for this type of research

Stuart, Scotland

The use of primates may be the only option researchers have for investigating neurological conditions in humans. As a scientist, I am very much for this type of research. However, as a genuine animal lover I feel that the use of primates in such experiments should only be used in exceptional and just circumstances.
Stuart, Scotland

We've engineered our environment around us for a long, long time already - we're just better and faster at it now. What's wrong with combating disease and disability through genetics? Do you want people born to suffer? Is there something noble about it? As for ethnic cleansing through genetics. Anyone who is good at the discipline will point out that each ethnic group has its blessings and curses in its DNA, so all are valuable. Hitler would not be proud of us because genetics and genetic modification go a long way to proving him very, very wrong.
Martin Bentley, UK

I feel that it is the "genetic" part that worries people, even though we have been using genetics since the beginning of time where selective breeding has been the issue. My dog was a wolf, for example. But I think that it is sad that it is only the "genetic" aspect that will be raising moral questions rather than the fact that we are using one of our closest relatives as a laboratory status symbol of what is genetically achievable.
Vicki, UK

I don't see what all the fuss is about. We should put it to good use and design a GM Prime Minister!
Michelle, England

The line is drawn the other side of a perfect master race, genetically engineered to remove all undesirable traits. No more disease, no more children taunted due to physical abnormalities or low intelligence. We've been here before - are blacks and Jews next? Hitler would be so proud of us.
John B, UK

See also:

12 Jan 01 | Science/Nature
11 Jan 01 | Science/Nature
14 Jan 00 | Science/Nature
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