Mad Science Produces Chimeras

03“The specter of an intelligent mouse stuck in a laboratory somewhere screaming “I want to get out” would be very troubling to people.”

Great Britain has nothing on us with their Chimeras, Cybrids and Hybrids! 

Based on interviews with three research teams, two in California and one in Minnesota, MIT Technology Review estimates that around 20 pregnancies of pig-human or sheep-human Chimeras were established during the last 12 months in the U.S, created by injecting human stem cells into days-old animal embryos and then gestated in female livestock. Even though none of the pregnancies were brought to term, this is still very disturbing.

Researchers began impregnating farm animals housed at the University of California, Davis  in 2014, with human-animal embryos, harvesting the Chimera before it reached full term to determine how great the contribution of human cells was to the animal’s body.

The extent of their research was disclosed, in par,t during presentations made at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Maryland campus in November last year. One researcher, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte of the Salk Institute showed unpublished data on more than a dozen pig embryos containing human cells. Another presenter from the University of Minnesota provided photographs of a 62 day old pig fetus in which the addition of human cells appeared to have reversed a congenital eye defect.

These disclosures prompted the National Institute of Health to announce that it would not support or fund studies of this nature until it had reviewed the scientific and social implications. They were concerned that animals “cognitive state” could be altered if they ended up with human brain cells. According to NIH ethicist David Resnik, they are also concerned that animals might turn out to be a “little too human for comfort,” like ending up with human reproductive cells, patches of human hair or just higher intelligence. “We are not near the island of Dr. Moreau, but science moves fast.”

The Chimera experiments rely on a cutting edge fusion of technologies including breakthroughs in stem-cell biology and gene-editing techniques. By modifying genes, scientists can now easily change the DNA in a pig or sheep embryo so that they are genetically incapable of forming a specific organ. Then, by adding stem cells from a human, they hope that the human cells will take over the job of forming the missing organ, which later would be harvested for use in transplants.

Chimeras are not new to the lab. Take for instance humanized mice created with a human immune system by adding bits of liver and thymus from a murdered unborn baby to a mouse after it is born. But this new line of research takes it a step further because it involves placing human cells into an animal embryo at its earliest stage. This process, embryo complementation, is significant because the human cells can multiply, specialize and potentially contribute to any part of the animal’s body as it develops. What if the embryo that develops is mostly human? While researchers say it is something that they don’t expect to happen, can they really rule it out?

Hiromitsu Nakauchi, a stem-cell biologist from Japan only moved to the U.S. in 2013. While in Japan he was working on creating a pig that could grow human organs. Regulators, who referred to his possible creation as the “pig-man,” were slow to approve his work forcing him to move to the U.S. where federal law does not restrict the creation of Chimeras. Stanford University snagged him with a $6 million grant from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a state agency created to bypass political interference from Washington, to continue his work in the U.S.

The whole process is unnatural and immoral. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should! 

Creating human-animal chimeras raises a number of ethical questions. At what point would this creation be considered human or what rights, if any, should it have?  David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University (2005), believes the real worry is whether or not chimeras will be put to uses that are problematic, risky, or dangerous. For example, an experiment that would raise concerns, he said, is genetically engineering mice to produce human sperm and eggs, then doing in vitro fertilization to produce a child whose parents are a pair of mice. While that may sound far-fetched – is it really?

Canada has already banned the creation of Chimeras. Cynthia Cohen, a member of Canada’s Stem Cell Oversight Committee, and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics in D.C. says mixing human and animal gametes or transferring reproductive cells diminishes human dignity. “It would deny that there is something distinctive and valuable about human beings that ought to be honored and protected.”

Whether this type of research is based on greed or need remains to be seen but researchers have decided to ignore the NIH and press ahead with their work. To date, no human organs have been produced in the Chimera, at least none that we know of.  But who knows what lurks behind the closed doors of America’s labs!

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