Geneticists Create Living Human Animal Chimeras

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"Geneticists Create Living Human Animal Chimeras"
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Shepherds still exist. Unlike their European counterparts centuries ago, however, many of today's American herders tend hybrids with human hearts, brains, livers, and a potpourri of other homo-sapiens attributes.  

The Greeks called them chimeras: lions, goats and serpents fused into terrifying animals; author H.G. Wells' named them manimals in his novel "The Island of Dr. Moreau." Some contemporary critics simply refer to the biological amalgams as Frankensheep.

While genetic research surges forward, some are beginning to get nervous. The ethical aspects of the experiments are blurring the once well-defined line between what's morally right and wrong.

Is that line being crossed? Some say yes.

Yet others, including the National Academies organization say no.

The chimeras that genetic researchers are now producing fall squarely withing the acceptable ethical guidelines that the science organization supports.

The Academies' guidelines for stem cell research go beyond just mere support: the organization actively encourages the blending of human tissues with animals in their quest to protect the safety of future patients facing new types of gene therapies and tissue replacement regimens.

Advocates of such genetic engineering argue that modified pig's blood has been used in transfusions, human heart valves have been replaced with pig's valves and experimental research has injected human cells into all sorts of lab animals over the years

But to some in the medical community—especially the field of medical ethics—the territory currently being explored may present an area that's ethically dubious. It may even be potentially dangerous to humanity over the long run.

During the past several years, quite a few strange experiments have taken place in the lofty quest to advance medicine. Some of the research includes adding or fusing human DNA with the DNA of chickens, insects, mice, rabbits and birds. An array of animals have been created with human components.

Animal and insect genes have also been fused with various plants.

Now, as this trend accelerates from university labs into the R&D labs of corporations, some believe the trend may be getting out of hand. A few go so far as to compare some of the chimeras—crawling around in cages or staring dolefully out of glassed in tanks—to Nazi-like experiments or nightmarish creatures from the dungeon-like laboratories of mad scientists.

And those critics may not be too far off in their assertions.

The Academies report, however, does raise some cautionary notes.

While stating the probability is very low, the organization does recognize the fear some researchers have expressed that horrifying episodes might emerge from a genetic blending of human brain cells with those of an animal. The concern is a human mind might awaken inside the head of a bleating goat or grunting pig.

Recognizing that such a thing might occur, however unlikely, the Acadamies stated bluntly the “idea that human neuronal cells might participate in 'higher order' brain functions in a nonhuman animal, however unlikely that may be, raises concerns that need to be considered."

Although that statement assuaged some fears, they quickly returned when Stanford University endorsed a plan to create experimental mice with brains composed of virtually all human brain cells.

The endorsement came during January 2011 before an ethics committee that held an informal hearing on the idea. The members were swayed by the argument made for the project by Irving Weissman who stated that such an experiment might provide a unique method to discover the way degenerative brain maladies like Parkinson’s disease progress, and even how the brain itself develops.

While some ethicists still ring the alarm bell about how inter-species gene mixing may eventually lead to such things as primate-human chimeras, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, of all entities, stepped into the debate early in 2011.

In an official statement, the patent office made it clear that certain human-animal combinations could be deemed too human and would directly violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibitions regarding slavery.

The office also pointed out that the Constitution forbids the patenting of people.

More about this author: Terrence Aym

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