Posted by Dr Katy Taylor on 2nd April 2016
GM monkeys are no ‘cure’ for autism
To date, not one animal experiment has been able to reproduce all of the features of autism
Today kicks off World Autism Awareness Week, a time to raise awareness about this lifelong, developmental disability.
We also ask you to spare a thought for the countless animals who continue to be subjected to unnecessary suffering in a misguided attempt to find a ‘cure’ for this complex and uniquely human condition.
Despite extensive use of animals in autism research, the exact cause of the condition remains unknown.
The most commonly used animals are genetically modified (GM) mice and rats, who are bred to possess specific genes suspected to cause autism in humans.
Other experiments involve exposing animals to a range of environmental factors, including certain chemicals and toxins, which may or may not be linked with an increased risk of developing the disorder.
More recently, scientists have attempted to create GM monkeys with autism.1
Researchers in China reported how they had bred eight macaque monkeys with an over-active human gene linked to autism. When they reached nearly one year of age, the monkeys started to show signs of behavioural problems, including:
- repetitive behaviours
- increased anxiety
- reduced social interaction.
The researchers claimed that this suggests the monkeys have a form of autism. Sadly, however, behaviours like these are common in monkeys held captive in laboratories.
Autism is a complex disorder and the genetic causes are far from clear. Whilst researchers may be able to alter one or two genes, they cannot overcome the massive differences between us and other non-human primates.
Using monkeys in this type of research is also very cruel. As well as the clear behavioural distress experienced by the monkeys, a large number of monkeys were used, several of whom became very ill and were killed.
Instead of developing techniques that may lead to a rise in the use of monkeys in research, scientists should be focusing their efforts on developing more reliable and human-relevant approaches. The best way to learn about human disorders is to study humans.
- Autism-like behaviours and germline transmission in transgenic monkeys overexpressing MeCP2. Nature doi:10.1038/nature16533