Posted by: Dan | January 10, 2007

On the “Chimera Quagmire”

Last week’s issue of Nature included an editorial on “avoiding the chimera quagmire, focusing on the question:

Researchers need to take the initiative in addressing a controversial and urgent ethical issue: under what circumstances should the fusion of cells of animals and humans be permitted?

Certainly the primary research organizations that guide scientific research must set guidelines to the ethical limits of what research is conducted – and at least here in the States, the National Academies of Science has a strong tradition in doing so. The need for ethics regulations must be tempered, however, by minimizing limits on intellectual curiousity. As few limits on what research is permissible should ideally be placed on the scientists as possible, so long as there is a rigorous funding review process, justifying such research. That said, on to the research in question…

In the United States, the National Institutes of Health does not fund research involving the transplantation of human embryonic stem cells into animal embryos. In Canada, this funding restriction extends to the transplantation of human tissue-specific (or ‘adult’) stem cells to animal embryos. In 2005, the US National Academy of Sciences stated its opposition to research in which human embryonic stem cells are introduced into non-human primate blastocysts (pre-implantation embryos), or in which any embryonic stem cells are introduced into human blastocysts, as well as the breeding of any animal into which human embryonic stem cells have been introduced.

At present, such guidelines are reasonable but do not consider several promising and arguably necessary avenues of research that combine human cells or cellular components with other species. These include combining the genetic material of humans and other species, the prenatal combination of cells from different individuals (animal to human, human to animal, or human to human), or grafting tissue from humans to animals.

One troubling outcome of a debate could be UK restrictions on current work combining factors from animal eggs (which, unlike human eggs, are readily accessible) with animal or human nuclei. These ‘nuclear reprogramming’ experiments aim to identify components of the egg that are capable of transforming an adult cell into one with the vast capabilities of stem cells. They could generate stem cells and tissues genetically and immunologically matched to patients, and obviate the need for human eggs and embryos in generating human embryonic stem cells. There are strong arguments for permitting such research, given the minimal safety risk or violation of human dignity when any resulting embryos are arrested at an early stage.

I fear that the mere mention of such animal-human chimeras might stir up religious and ethical concerns amongst the lay public, well before researchers have a chance to explain the details of it. Similarly, with the announcement last week of stem cells discovered in amniotic fluid, I fear that the political debate on behalf of embryonic stem cells will be relaxed, even forgotten. In reality, meanwhile, ethical concerns surrounding these areas of research are minimal, being addressed internally within the major scientific institutions, and offer tremendous benefits to biomedical understanding. That this is even an issue is, in my opinion, largely due to the pernicious agenda of fundamentalists and anti-intellectuals.

Indeed, this editorial concludes with simple and prudent researchers to address all of the questions at hand – ethical and scientific alike:

Scientists should identify the various research protocols defining interspecies research involving human cells and embryos, and the associated risks, ethical issues and benefits of each. They should put forward clear and comprehensive recommendations to the public and to regulatory bodies. If they don’t, they risk having regulation and funding restrictions imposed on their research that are out of proportion to the ethical or safety risks involved. Even worse, they could face prohibitions that lump together research with vast disparities in intent and in the balance of risk and benefit — ultimately penalizing those who stand to gain from the therapies that might emerge.


Responses

  1. Thank you for steering me to this great post of yours on this important topic.

    I am not an expert, but I am someone who is interested in science, and concerned about science education being “watered down” in certain regions of the United States. I think the lay public is not prepared to understand all the factors involved; yet they need to be in order to make correct political decisions in the future regarding regulation.

    Regarding the post I made on this topic, I am all in favor of pursuing beneficial research. But given what human nature is, I don’t think regulators will be able to control ALL researchers in the world from eventually going to lengths which might actually cross species to produce an animal with human intelligence, yet without human rights or dignity. I can forsee the day when such animals could be used as lab animals, or slaves (if you live in a third-world country like I do, you still see animal-slaves being used every day of the week; and don’t forget the vets who treat untold numbers of animals who are raped and “used” by humans, casuing harm to many of them).

    I am not saying that this research should be stopped, nor that there are not valid reasons for much of it going ahead. I am merely commenting on human nature, that sometime, somewhere in the future (50 years, 100 years, 200 years) SOMEONE is going to do it, regardless of regulations, and SOMEONE is going to be willing to PAY for it, regardless of LAWS.

    Meanwhile, sience education needs to be greatly strengthened, particularly in biology. The future requires it.

    Eileen
    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)
    elementaryteacher.wordpress.com

  2. I’m glad my post was of help, but to one bit of your comment:

    I don’t think regulators will be able to control ALL researchers in the world from eventually going to lengths which might actually cross species to produce an animal with human intelligence, yet without human rights or dignity. I can forsee the day when such animals could be used as lab animals, or slaves (if you live in a third-world country like I do, you still see animal-slaves being used every day of the week; and don’t forget the vets who treat untold numbers of animals who are raped and “used” by humans, casuing harm to many of them).

    You’ve got one heck of an imagination.

    Seriously, that’s just not going to happen.

  3. Hmmm….is that because you feel it will be impossible scientifically to do so, in a laboratory, or becaue you feel scientists around the world will ALL (every one of them, remember, it only takes ONE) behave in a responsible manner?

    Eileen

  4. That reaction is because …

    1. No one wants to. Being familiar with this field of science, I’m quite certain that no one has proposed creating “smart animals” or enslaving them.

    2. It’s not possible. We don’t know very much about what genes make ourselves intelligent, much less how to transpose those genes and traits into other animals.

    3. No one will pay for it. Science funding doesn’t grow on trees, and scientists don’t get to spend money researching things that are fanciful but serve no practical purpose. In this case, “animal slaves” addresses no relevant questions in biology or genetics, nor would such creations advance medicine in any way.

    4. It just doesn’t make sense, as though it was something a comedian or fantasy fiction novelist would come up with.


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