Britain is debating how to regulate scientific experiments involving human/animal hybrids or “chimeras” amid concerns about a negative backlash and accusations of Frankenstein science.
The science is not new. Adapting animals to produce tissue suitable for human implantation has been in the news for many years. The image of a mouse with a human ear on its back has been seared into my memory since the 1990s. However, now the very real prospect of manipulating embryo animals to produce “human” organs brings the debate to a new level.
The shortage of human organs for transplant has prompted some interesting developments – including making organ donation the default position when someone dies or even the mandatory removal of suitable organs from executed prisoners. However, this approach could massively reduce waiting lists. In theory at least.
The Catholic Church has also become embroiled when the Pope was recently reported as giving the ethical green light to human/animal hybrids. This was quickly refuted, with the Church making it clear that such a blanket approval was impossible and that every case should be considered separately.
The US does not permit Federal funding of such research, but this hasn’t stopped research in the country.
Apart from the potential for organ transplants, chimeras have been used to investigate the development of disease in humans. For example, implanting high-functioning neurones into primates could enable researchers to investigate diseases like Alzheimer’s.
However, work on the brain is especially controversial – with some voicing strong concerns about unexpected effects on the consciousness of the resultant animals.
The UK discussion aims to put in place legislation that provides a rigid framework for the scientific principles originally agreed in 2008. In essence is seems likely that certain work will be either prohibited outright or be subject to enhances ethics review. Such research would include work on human/animal brains and modifications that could make animals outwardly appear more human.
This is all well and good, but there is also the public perception barrier to cross. The mouse with a human ear produced a massive public backlash against animal experimentation – and this was only cartilage in the rough shape of an ear.
When it comes to accepting transplants of hearts, kidneys or livers grown in pigs – that’s a different ballgame.