Are we really ready for Human Animal Hybrids ?
Should the U.S. government use tax dollars to fund scientists fusing human stem cells into early animal embryos in order to create “chimeras” that are part human and part pig? Or part mouse?
The U.S. National Institutes of Health says the answer is YES.
Carrie Wolinetz, the NIH’s associate director for policy, said experiments to inject human stem cells into early-stage animal embryos “are really important and exciting to understand how disease works” and to explore new medical treatments. At the same time, the agency is proposing stricter controls on certain experiments most likely to lead to monkey-men or other bad science fiction.
At the time, none of the animals had been brought to term, out of scientific caution. Scientists carrying out that work at Stanford University say the fetal animals would only contain a small proportion of human cells. However, Rudolf Jaenisch, a biologist at MIT, says that to his knowledge, none of Human Animal Hybrids experiments have worked.
Human-animal mixtures aren’t new. But the new research is different: Potent human stem cells are being injected directly into a very early-stage animal embryo, consisting of just a couple of dozen cells.
Theoretically, the human cells could then end up contributing to any part of the animal, and in any amount.
“There is definitely interest in the scientific community to pursue these studies”, says Arun Sharma, a researcher at Stanford University.
“In my opinion, the NIH is doing the right thing in thoroughly evaluating the scientific and bioethical implications of this work before pushing forward.”
What’s the point of such experiments?
One is that it might be possible to create an otherwise normal pig whose entire heart is made from human cells. That would create a new way to farm human organs for transplant.
“What is new is as the science has progressed, as we have seen advances in stem-cell technology and gene-editing capabilities. We’ve begun to creep a little bit closer to the science leading to some of these ethical concerns,” says Wolinetz.
Anyway, the agency wants to explicitly bar any of these human-animal chimeras from being allowed to reproduce. The risk— which could have disastrous consequences for public confidence in science—is if two chimeras mated and gave rise to a human fetus. That could happen if their sperm or egg were human.
Credits: MIT tecnology review