A few months ago, it was announced that not one, but two healthy long-tailed macaque monkeys were cloned—a first for primates of any kind. The cells were sourced from aborted monkey fetuses and the DNA transferred into eggs whose nuclei had been removed, the same method that was used in 1996 to clone "Dolly the Sheep." Two live births, females named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, resulted from 60 surrogate mothers. Inefficient, it's true. But over time, the methods are likely to be improved.
The scientist who supervised the project predicts that cloning, along with gene editing, will result in "ideal primate models" for studying disease mechanisms and drug screening.
Dr. Gerald Schatten, a famous would-be monkey cloner, authored a controversial paper in 2003 describing the formidable challenges to cloning monkeys and humans, speculating that the feat might never be accomplished. Now, some 15 years later, that prediction, insofar as it relates to monkeys, has blown away.
Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were created at the Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai. The Institute founded in 1999 boasts 32 laboratories, expanding to 50 labs in 2020. It maintains two non-human primate research facilities.
The founder and director, Dr. Mu-ming Poo, supervised the project. Poo is an extremely accomplished senior researcher at the pinnacle of his field, a distinguished professor emeritus in Biology at UC Berkeley. In 2016, he was awarded the prestigious $500,000 Gruber Neuroscience Prize. At that time, Poo's experiments were described by a colleague as being "innovative and very often ingenious."
Poo maintains the reputation of studying some of the most important questions in cellular neuroscience.
But is society ready to accept cloned primates for medical research without the attendant hysteria about fears of cloned humans?
By Western standards, use of non-human primates in research focuses on the welfare of the animal subjects. As PETA reminds us, there is a dreadful and sad history of mistreatment. Dr. Poo assures us that his cloned monkeys are treated ethically and that the Institute is compliant with the highest regulatory standards, as promulgated by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
He presents the noblest justifications for the research. He predicts that cloning, along with gene editing, will result in "ideal primate models" for studying disease mechanisms and drug screening. He declares that this will eventually help to solve Parkinson's, Huntington's and Alzheimer's disease.
But is society ready to accept cloned primates for medical research without the attendant hysteria about fears of cloned humans? It appears so.
While much of the news coverage expressed this predictable worry, my overall impression is that the societal response was muted. Where was the expected outrage? Then again, we've come a long way since Dolly the Sheep in terms of both the science and the cultural acceptance of cloning. Perhaps my unique vantage point can provide perspective on how much attitudes have evolved.
Perhaps my unique vantage point can provide perspective on how much attitudes have evolved.
I sometimes joke that I am the world's only human cloning lawyer—a great gig but there are still no clients.
I first crashed into the cloning scene in 2002 when I sued the so-called human cloning company "Clonaid" and asked in court to have a temporary guardian appointed for the alleged first human clone "Baby Eve." The claim needed to be tested, and mine was the first case ever aiming to protect the rights of a human clone. My legal basis was child welfare law, protecting minors from abuse, negligence, and exploitation.
The case had me on back-to-back global television broadcasts around the world; there was live news and "breathless" coverage at the courthouse emblazoned in headlines in every language on the planet. Cloning was, after all, perceived as a species-altering event: asexual reproduction. The controversy dominated world headlines for month until Clonaid's claim was busted as the "fakest" of fake news.
Fresh off the cloning case, the scientific community reached out to me, seeing me as the defender of legitimate science, an opponent of cloning human babies but a proponent of using cloning techniques to accelerate ethical regenerative medicine and embryonic stem cell research in general.
The years 2003 to 2006 were the era of the "stem cell wars" and a dominant issue was human cloning. Social conservative lawmakers around the world were seeking bans or criminalization not only of cloning babies but also the cloning of cells to match the donor's genetics. Scientists were being threatened with fines and imprisonment. Human cloning was being challenged in the United Nations with the United States backing a global treaty to ban and morally condemn all cloning -- including the technique that was crucial for research.
Scientists and patients were touting the cloning technique as a major biomedical breakthrough because cells could be created as direct genetic matches from a specific donor.
At the same time, scientists and patients were touting the cloning technique as a major biomedical breakthrough because cells could be created as direct genetic matches from a specific donor.
So my organization organized a conference at UN headquarters to defend research cloning and all the big names in stem cell research were there. We organized petitions to the UN and faxed 35,000 signatures to the country mission. These ongoing public policy battles were exacerbated in part because of the growing fear that cloning babies was just around the corner.
Then in 2005, the first cloned dog stunned the world, an Afghan hound named Snuppy. I met him when I visited the laboratories of Professor Woo Suk Hwang in Korea. His minders let me hold his leash -- TIME magazine's scientific breakthrough of the year. He didn't lick me or even wag his tail; I figured he must not like lawyers.
Tragically, soon thereafter, I witnessed firsthand Dr. Hwang's fall from grace when his human stem cell cloning breakthroughs proved false. The massive scientific misconduct rocked the nation of Korea, stem cell science in general, and provoked terrible news coverage.
Nevertheless, by 2007, the proposed bans lost steam, overridden by the advent of a Japanese researcher's Nobel Prize winning formula for reprogramming human cells to create genetically matched cell lines, not requiring the destruction of human embryos.
After years of panic, none of the recent cloning headlines has caused much of a stir.
Five years later, when two American scientists accomplished therapeutic human cloned stem cell lines, their news was accepted without hysteria. Perhaps enough time had passed since Hwang and the drama was drained.
In the just past 30 days we have seen more cloning headlines. Another cultural icon, Barbara Streisand, revealed she owns two cloned Coton de Tulear puppies. The other weekend, the television news show "60 Minutes" devoted close to an hour on the cloned ponies used at the top level of professional polo. And in India, scientists just cloned the first Assamese buffalo.
And you know what? After years of panic, none of this has caused much of a stir. It's as if the future described by Alvin Toffler in "Future Shock" has arrived and we are just living with it. A couple of cloned monkeys barely move the needle.
Perhaps it is the advent of the Internet and the overall dilution of wonder and outrage. Or maybe the muted response is rooted in popular culture. From Orphan Black to the plotlines of dozens of shows and books, cloning is just old news. The hand-wringing discussions about "human dignity" and "slippery slopes" have taken a backseat to the AI apocalypse and Martian missions.
We humans are enduring plagues of dementia and Alzheimer's, and we will need more monkeys. I will take mine cloned, if it will speed progress.
Personally, I still believe that cloned children should not be an option. Child welfare laws might be the best deterrent.
The same does not hold for cloning monkey research subjects. Squeamishness aside, I think Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua will soon be joined by a legion of cloned macaques and probably marmosets.
We humans are enduring plagues of dementia and Alzheimer's, and we will need more monkeys. I will take mine cloned, if it will speed the mending of these consciousness-destroying afflictions.
Scientific revolutions once took centuries, then decades, and now seem to bombard us daily. The convergence of technologies has accelerated the future. To Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, my best wishes with the hope that their sacrifices will contribute to the health of all primates -- not just humans.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
A highly contagious form of the coronavirus known as the Delta variant is spreading rapidly and becoming increasingly prevalent around the world. First identified in India in December, Delta has now been identified in 111 countries.
In the United States, the variant now accounts for 83% of sequenced COVID-19 cases, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a July 20 Senate hearing. In May, Delta was responsible for just 3% of U.S. cases. The World Health Organization projects that Delta will become the dominant variant globally over the coming months.
So, how worried should you be about the Delta variant? We asked experts some common questions about Delta.
What is a variant?
To understand Delta, it's helpful to first understand what a variant is. When a virus infects a person, it gets into your cells and makes a copy of its genome so it can replicate and spread throughout your body.
In the process of making new copies of itself, the virus can make a mistake in its genetic code. Because viruses are replicating all the time, these mistakes — also called mutations — happen pretty often. A new variant emerges when a virus acquires one or more new mutations and starts spreading within a population.
There are thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants, but most of them don't substantially change the way the virus behaves. The variants that scientists are most interested in are known as variants of concern. These are versions of the virus with mutations that allow the virus to spread more easily, evade vaccines, or cause more severe disease.
"The vast majority of the mutations that have accumulated in SARS-CoV-2 don't change the biology as far as we're concerned," said Jennifer Surtees, a biochemist at the University of Buffalo who's studying the coronavirus. "But there have been a handful of key mutations and combinations of mutations that have led to what we're now calling variants of concern."
One of those variants of concern is Delta, which is now driving many new COVID-19 infections.
Why is the Delta variant so concerning?
"The reason why the Delta variant is concerning is because it's causing an increase in transmission," said Alba Grifoni, an infectious disease researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. "The virus is spreading faster and people — particularly those who are not vaccinated yet — are more prone to exposure."
The Delta variant has a few key mutations that make it better at attaching to our cells and evading the neutralizing antibodies in our immune system. These mutations have changed the virus enough to make it more than twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in Wuhan and about 50% more contagious than the Alpha variant, previously known as B.1.1.7, or the U.K. variant.
These mutations were previously seen in other variants on their own, but it's their combination that makes Delta so much more infectious.
Do vaccines work against the Delta variant?
The good news is, the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer still work against the Delta variant. They remain more than 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations and death due to Delta. While they're slightly less protective against disease symptoms, they're still very effective at preventing severe illness caused by the Delta variant.
"They're not as good as they were against the prior strains, but they're holding up pretty well," said Eric Topol, a physician and director of the Scripps Translational Research Institute, during a July 19 briefing for journalists.
Because Delta is better at evading our immune systems, it's likely causing more breakthrough infections — COVID-19 cases in people who are vaccinated. However, breakthrough infections were expected before the Delta variant became widespread. No vaccine is 100% effective, so breakthrough infections can happen with other vaccines as well. Experts say the COVID-19 vaccines are still working as expected, even if breakthrough infections occur. The majority of these infections are asymptomatic or cause only mild symptoms.
Should vaccinated people worry about the Delta variant?
Vaccines train our immune systems to protect us against infection. They do this by spurring the production of antibodies, which stick around in our bodies to help fight off a particular pathogen in case we ever come into contact with it.
But even if the new Delta variant slips past our neutralizing antibodies, there's another component of our immune system that can help overtake the virus: T cells. Studies are showing that the COVID-19 vaccines also galvanize T cells, which help limit disease severity in people who have been vaccinated.
"While antibodies block the virus and prevent the virus from infecting cells, T cells are able to attack cells that have already been infected," Grifoni said. In other words, T cells can prevent the infection from spreading to more places in the body. A study published July 1 by Grifoni and her colleagues found that T cells were still able to recognize mutated forms of the virus — further evidence that our current vaccines are effective against Delta.
Can fully vaccinated people spread the Delta variant?
Scientists think it's unlikely that fully vaccinated individuals who have an asymptomatic infection are transmitting the Delta variant. That's because vaccinated people are thought to have relatively low levels of the virus in their respiratory tracts and therefore, they don't transmit as much virus.
Still, breakthrough infections can occur. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should get tested and isolate from friends and family because you could spread the virus.
What risk does Delta pose to unvaccinated people?
The Delta variant is behind a surge in cases in communities with low vaccination rates, and unvaccinated Americans currently account for 97% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19, according to Walensky. The best thing you can do right now to prevent yourself from getting sick is to get vaccinated.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in this week's "Making Sense of Science" podcast that it's especially important to get all required doses of the vaccine in order to have the best protection against the Delta variant. "Even if it's been more than the allotted time that you were told to come back and get the second, there's no time like the present," she said.
With more than 3.6 billion COVID-19 doses administered globally, the vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe. Serious adverse effects are rare, although scientists continue to monitor for them.
Being vaccinated also helps prevent the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. Viruses need to infect people in order to replicate, and variants emerge because the virus continues to infect more people. More infections create more opportunities for the virus to acquire new mutations.
Surtees and others worry about a scenario in which a new variant emerges that's even more transmissible or resistant to vaccines. "This is our window of opportunity to try to get as many people vaccinated as possible and get people protected so that so that the virus doesn't evolve to be even better at infecting people," she said.
Does Delta cause more severe disease?
While hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are increasing again, it's not yet clear whether Delta causes more severe illness than previous strains.
How can we protect unvaccinated children from the Delta variant?
With children 12 and under not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, kids are especially vulnerable to the Delta variant. One way to protect unvaccinated children is for parents and other close family members to get vaccinated.
It's also a good idea to keep masks handy when going out in public places. Due to risk Delta poses, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines July 19 recommending that all staff and students over age 2 wear face masks in school this fall, even if they have been vaccinated.
Parents should also avoid taking their unvaccinated children to crowded, indoor locations and make sure their kids are practicing good hand-washing hygiene. For children younger than 2, limit visits with friends and family members who are unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown and keep up social distancing practices while in public.
While there's no evidence yet that Delta increases disease severity in children, parents should be mindful that in some rare cases, kids can get a severe form of the disease.
"We're seeing more children getting sick and we're seeing some of them get very sick," Surtees said. "Those children can then pass on the virus to other individuals, including people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated."