The ethical issues involved in combining human DNA with animal DNA are so great–and so obvious–that the federal government at first refused to fund those kinds of experiments. But now, reports Timothy Willard, the National Institute for Health has rescinded the ban.
Willard reports on the kind of experimentation your tax dollars will be going towards: A researcher from the University of California, Davis, that is planning to inject human embryonic stem cells into a pig embryo. The fetus will then be implanted into the womb of a pig, who will give birth to the human/pig organism (known as a “chimera” for the mythological monsters who are combinations of various animals).
The researcher says he is doing this for the universal excuse of some day curing disease and making more compatible organs to transplant. But he openly acknowledges what can go wrong.
Since he can’t really control what those human stem cells might turn into, if two adult chimeras mate, the result might be a a human baby with a pig as his or her parents. Or we might have a pig with a human brain and human consciousness.
But don’t worry, he says. If anything goes wrong, he will abort the fetus. This is apparently what convinced the NIH that the experiments can be ethical.
The uncertainty is part of what makes the work so controversial. Ross and other scientists conducting these experiments can’t know exactly where the human stem cells will go. Ross hopes they’ll only grow a human pancreas. But they could go elsewhere, such as to the brain.“If you have pigs with partly human brains you would have animals that might actually have consciousness like a human,” Newman says. “It might have human-type needs. We don’t really know.”
That possibility raises new questions about the morality of using the animals for experimentation. Another concern is that the stem cells could form human sperm and human eggs in the chimeras.
“If a male chimeric pig mated with a female chimeric pig, the result could be a human fetus developing in the uterus of that female chimera,” Newman says. Another possibility is the animals could give birth to some kind of part-human, part-pig creature.
“One of the concerns that a lot of people have is that there’s something sacrosanct about what it means to be human expressed in our DNA,” saysJason Robert, a bioethicist at Arizona State University. “And that by inserting that into other animals and giving those other animals potentially some of the capacities of humans that this could be a kind of violation — a kind of, maybe, even a playing God.”
Ross defends what his work. “I don’t consider that we’re playing God or even close to that,” Ross says. “We’re just trying to use the technologies that we have developed to improve peoples’ life.”