The scientists who carried out the latest primate work are believed to have tried to implant about 100 cloned embryos into the wombs of around 50 surrogate rhesus macaque mothers but have not yet succeeded with the birth of any cloned offspring.
However, one senior scientist involved in the study said that this may simply be down to bad luck – it took 277 attempts, for instance, to create Dolly the sheep, the first clone of an adult mammal.
The work was led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a Russian-born scientist at the Oregon National Primate Research Centre in Beaverton. Dr Mitalipov helped to pioneer a new way of handling primate eggs during the cloning process, which involved fusing each egg with a nucleus taken from a skin cell of an adult primate.
Dr Mitalipov said he was unable to comment on the study until it was published in the journal Nature. But he told colleagues at a scientific meeting this year that he had made two batches of stem cells from 20 cloned embryos and tests had shown they were true clones.
Professor Alan Trounson of Monash University in Australia said Dr Mitalipov's findings represented the long-awaited breakthrough. Despite many attempts, no one had been able to produce cloned primate embryos from adult cells, yet this had been done on dozens of other non-primate species. " This is 'proof of concept' for the primate. It has been thought by some [to be too] difficult in monkeys – and humans – but those of us who work [with] animals such as sheep and cattle thought that success rates would be much like that achieved in these species," Professor Trounson said.
"Mitalipov's data confirms this. They have the skills necessary and we can now move on to consider what might be able to be achieved in humans."
Professor Don Wolf, who led the laboratory at the Oregon National Primate Research Centre before his recent retirement, said the new procedure was based on a microscopic technique that does not use ultraviolet light and dyes, which appear to damage primate eggs.
"We're the first to do it, although it's a tainted subject because of the fraudulent research that came out of South Korea. One can never be sure but there may be some validity to what the South Koreans did. But this would now be the first documented therapeutic cloning in a primate," he added.