by: Isabelle Z.
The moratorium was put in place in September over ethical concerns, but the new policy will allow scientists to make such embryos, known as chimera, with federal funding under certain circumstances.
Scientists are hoping to create animal models of diseases that affect humans using these embryos, which they believe could help them develop new ways to treat these illnesses. Another goal is to create pigs, cows and sheep that have human hearts, livers, kidneys and other organs to use for human transplants.
However, the ethical concerns remain. For example, what if scientists inadvertently (or intentionally) create animals with part-human brains, giving them human consciousness and thinking abilities? What if these animals end up with human eggs and sperm and breed, creating human embryos inside of animals or other hybrid creatures?
Safeguards not enough
The new policy does take steps to ensure that certain human cells are not allowed to be introduced into other primates like monkeys and chimps, because they are so closely related to human beings.
A committee will be put in place to consider certain experiments involving human brain tissue or cells – for example, in the case of exploring Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. These experiments will be subject to scrutiny if there is any possibility that the animal’s brain could undergo a “substantial functional modification.” In the event that animals that have human eggs and sperm are created – for example, to study infertility or human development – certain procedures would have to be followed that would prevent these animals from breeding.
In a blog post, NIH associate director for science policy, Carrie Wolinetz, expressed confidence that the proposed changes would “enable the NIH research community to move this promising area of science forward in a responsible manner.”
The committee is a good idea in theory, but given the track record of some of the other governmental agencies out there, it’s hardly a comforting thought to those who are legitimately concerned about the possible repercussions of these kinds of Frankenstein-like experiments. The possibility for political interference in this scenario is also quite high. There are lives to be saved, yes, but there is also a lot of money to be made, and that’s why this could end up taking a very dark turn.
The NIH is currently accepting comments on the chimera research proposal on its website. The NIH says it will consider all of the public comments it receives before proceeding.
Chimera experiments already underway
Earlier this year, MIT Technology Review reported that human-animal chimeras were already gestating at research farms. They estimated that around 20 pregnancies involving sheep-human or pig-human chimeras had taken place during the previous 12 months, although none of them had been brought to term.
Emory University Center of Ethics director, Paul Root Wolpe, told CNN that the procedure was “crude.” He said: “We are throwing stem cells into embryonic cells and hoping that it works out. We have to be really careful about that.”
NIH ethicist, David Resnik, commented: “We are not near the island of Dr. Moreau, but science moves fast.” That’s not exactly a comforting thought.