In Greek mythology the Chimera was a creature composed of three animals, head of a goat, body of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. The beast was supposedly slain by the warrior Bellerophon. Many of us may already be familiar with this story. What most of us are unaware of is that chimeras are real and may soon become a major controversy.
In biotechnology the term chimera refers to a creature containing cells from another species. Scientists now wish to fuse animal and human cells to create such hybrids, in fact some have already done just that. H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau may not be so far off. The fact is, as always, today's science is yesterday's science-fiction.
Now while there is nothing as severe as a goat, lion, snake hybrid roaming about, there are creatures of unnatural origin being created in laboratories right now.
Chinese scientists at the Shanghai Second Medical University fused human cells with rabbit eggs. These were reported to be the first successful animal-human hybrids back in 2003. The embryos were harvested for stem cells after a few days in the lab.
Esmail Zanjani , a professor of medicine at the University of Reno in Nevada, has injected human stem cells into fetal sheep and pigs. Zanjani hopes to grow possibly transplantable organs and tissues in these animals.
In Mayo Clinic, located in Minnesota, a team of biotechnologists successfully created pigs with human blood flowing through their veins.
Irv Weissman, director of Stanford University's Institute of Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, has created mice with brains that are roughly one percent human. He has plans for later this year to conduct an experiment that may yield mice with one hundred percent human brains. Weissman plans to inject human neurons into the brains of embryonic mice. The mice would be destroyed before birth and dissected to search for the architecture of a human mind. If they did Weissman would allow them to develop and he would look for traces of cognitive behavior. Weissman claims this is not the act of a mad scientist, he wishes to better understand the brain and how it works. He feels this would be useful in the study and treatment of diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
One experiment proposed but not executed as of this writing suggests genetically engineering mice to produce human sperm and eggs. This could result in a child being born to mice parents.
All of this raises some major ethical questions in my mind and I am apparently not alone.
Stuart Newman, a cell biologist at New York Medical College, and Jeremy Rifkin, an anti-biotechnology activist, have filed for a patent on all known methods for creating chimeras. Not because they wish to do so, but rather to prevent anyone else from being able to. They have not yet been granted a patent but they remain persistent.
The Patent and Trademark Office is still unsure whether or not human cells can be patented, the issue is not covered in the laws pertaining to patents. However, cellular patents have been issued as far back as 1980 with Chakrabarty and his oil spill eating microbes.
Newman and Rifkin claim this research is unethical and unnecessary. They say most of these medical experiments can be done with computers and digital simulations. Rifkin claims animals should have the right not to have their genes tampered with and mixed with other animals or humans. He also claims this is attempted evolution control. If they get their patent they will be able to stop all chimeric research. This possibility has many scientists understandably upset.
Ronald Bailey of Reason.com feels, like many biotechnologists, that these chimeras offer almost countless medical applications. Bailey points out that experiments such as the mice parents are not what to commonly expect. He singles out Zanjani's sheep which could provide organ transplants to people who need them. Bailey also stated that one cell does not make an animal human. Rifkin might agree with this but, feels whether it is one or a hundred cells we are still tampering with the living fabric of these animals and in so doing are altering the course of evolution.
I have presented this information to you because I am not sure where I stand on the matter. I have just learned of these chimeras recently and it is my feeling that more people should be aware of them. Chimeras offer a vast number of positive medical benefits, but also border on the fine line of morality and immorality. One thing is for sure, chimeras exist and should be stressed to the public. We need to know where the majority of our society stands on an issue as ethical as this. I only hope that when or if we continue that we proceed with caution. I think Wells would probably agree with me on that.