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Scientists in China have created the first monkeys cloned by the same process that produced Dolly the sheep more than 20 years ago, a breakthrough that could boost medical research into human diseases.

The two long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) named Hua Hua and Zhong Zhong were born at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai, and are the fruits of years of research into a cloning technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer.

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“The barrier has been broken by this work,” co-author Muming Poo, director of the Institute of Neuroscience of CAS Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology, told AFP.

Until now, the technique has been used to clone more than 20 different animal species, including dogs, pigs, and cats, but primates have proven particularly difficult.

The birth of the now six and eight-week-old macaque babies also raises ethical questions about how close scientists have come to one-day cloning humans.

Humans could be cloned by this technique, in principle, said Poo, though this team’s focus was on cloning for medical research.

One day, the approach might be used to create large populations of genetically identical monkeys that could be used for medical research – and avoid taking monkeys from the wild.

“In the United States alone they are importing 30,000 to 40,000 monkeys each year by drug companies,” said Poo.

“Their genetic backgrounds are all variable, they are not identical, so you need a large number of monkeys. For ethical reasons I think having cloned monkey will greatly reduce the (number of) monkeys used for drug tests.”

Monkeys are commonly used in medical research on brain diseases like Parkinson’s, cancer, immune and metabolic disorders.

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