Image: Science

Researchers have succeeded in producing the first genetically modified primate, according to a report published today in the journal Science. The baby rhesus monkey, dubbed ANDi (backwards for inserted DNA), was born in early October and carries an extra gene that was slipped into his mother's egg prior to fertilization. Such engineering may ultimately point the way to improved gene therapy treatments for human diseases.

Producing ANDi was no small feat. Gerald Schatten of the Oregon Health Sciences University and his colleagues modified some 224 eggs, but only ended up with three healthy babies. And successful integration of the extra DNA occurred only in ANDi. Although researchers hope to eventually use such techniques to produce the non-human primate equivalent of transgenic mice, which have proved so useful in disease studies, the extra DNA ANDi received does not cause disease. Rather it is a marker gene. Taken from a jellyfish, the so-called GFP gene should produce a fluorescent protein when activated, making it easy to detect. So far none of the cells sampled have revealed the telltale glow. But expression may not occur until he is older. In the meantime, ANDi remains healthy and "plays normally with his two roommates," according to Schatten.

"Monkeys like ANDi and Tetra, a cloned monkey, will quickly but safely help us determine if innovative therapies are safe and effective," Schatten remarks. "It may soon be possible to introduce markers monitored by non-invasive techniques, such as MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] or PET [positron emission tomography], to discover the developmental events that lead to diseases like diabetes, heart disease and even mental illnesses.