H.G. Wells penned his horror novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, in 1896, telling the seemingly impossible story of a mad scientist who surgically changes humans into animals. Well over a century later, science fiction has not only morphed into real science but the U.S. wants to fund what would once have been unthinkable experiments.
In early August, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a proposal to lift a ban on funding for controversial experiments in which researchers add human stem cells to animal embryos, creating organisms commonly called chimeras—part animal, part human.
Under the new guidelines, NIH will continue to prohibit funding for research that introduces human stem cells into the embryos of non-human primates like monkeys, which the agency deems too closely related to humans. But the new policy will grant funding for such experiments using other species, even experiments which create animals with human brain tissue, sperm, or eggs.
Many scientists opposed to the new policy guidelines are cringing at the moral and ethical implications. Jeffrey Keenan, president and medical director of the National Embryo Donation Center, believes this type of research is not only inherently wrong but also dangerous because of the unknown consequences.
“Humans and animals were created distinct and separate species, and we do not believe it is the place of scientists to create life that is not fully human nor fully animal,” he said.
But other researchers hail the proposal as a means to use animals to grow human organs for transplants or to create animal models of human diseases that could lead to new treatments or prevention.
“At the end of the day, we want to make sure this research progresses because it’s very important to our understanding of disease,” Carrie Wolinetz, NIH associate director for science policy, told NPR. “It’s important to our mission to improve human health.”
Some experts voice concern that animals created with human sperm or eggs could breed and produce human embryos growing inside animals. But the NIH proposal states it will continue to deny funds for any research that involves breeding such animals.
Critics of the proposal fear experiments that introduce human brain cells into other species could result in animals that have some degree of human consciousness or thinking ability.
Wolinetz admitted scientists face extensive knowledge gaps regarding the effect of introducing human cells into an animal’s brain and will have some “on-the-job learning.”
“There is a lot we don’t understand about the brain, which is one reason the possibility of these animal models is really exciting,” she told NPR.
NIH proposes to address the ethical concerns regarding the new guidelines by establishing an internal steering committee of experts who will provide input regarding funding of experiments. The agency wants “to make sure there’s an extra set of eyes on these projects because they do have this ethical set of concerns associated with them,” Wolinetz said.
But other experts, like Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, are not reassured that a government steering committee will take ethical concerns seriously.
“If we had a science sector that believed in the intrinsic dignity of human life, we could explore these potentially beneficent avenues of biotechnology with little concern that scientists would begin to blur vital distinctions or cross crucial ethical lines dividing human beings from fauna,” he wrote in the blog Evolution News. “Alas, we don’t live in that milieu and we can’t trust our regulatory bodies …”
Smith also fears the general public may put personal concerns ahead of moral responsibility.
“If you tell many people that biotechnology will cure their Uncle Charlie’s Parkinson’s disease, they won’t give much of a fig about other moral ramifications,” he wrote.
NIH will take public comment on the proposed policy changes until Sept. 4. It hopes to issue a final policy and lift the moratorium by late January, Wolinetz told Science Magazine.
Courtesy: WORLD News Service
Publication date: August 15, 2016