Gene-modified autistic monkeys could lead to a cure for humans

The controversial approach may show whether gene editing can fix a major disorder.

There's little doubt that gene editing could be one of the greatest advances in medical science, since it might let you "turn off" conditions. However, the way you test that editing is another challenge entirely -- and some scientists in China are pushing some boundaries to make it work. They've used genetic engineering to breed over a dozen macaque monkeys with a flawed gene that triggers a rare form of autism in humans. The hope is that researchers can not only study how brains function with this condition, but experiment with treatments that could be useful on people. Ideally, the researchers will use a gene editing system like CRISPR to eliminate the condition outright.

As you might guess, purposefully creating monkeys with a mental illness (which has happened before) isn't going to win over anyone who objects to experimenting on animals. There's also a concern as to whether or not this is practical -- even if you can afford to wait a few years for the monkeys to grow up, you may not have enough of them to conduct sufficiently large-scale tests. Clearly, the team is betting that the ethical and logistical problems will be worthwhile if they help end a major psychological disorder.

[Image credit: ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images]