U.S. researchers now growing human organs inside animals to be sacrificed for transplants; Genetically altered chimeras an assault on Mother Nature
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by: Jennifer Lea Reynolds
January 20, 2016
Just when you think the world can’t get any more bizarre, it does.
Case in point: the latest in “let’s play Mother Nature” news, is that United States researchers now have their sights set on growing human organs … inside farm animals. Oh, but it gets better. The point of all of this? It’s to then take the Franken-organs and use them for transplant procedures, despite the fact that not enough is known about this. As a result, there are lots of folks with Island of Dr. Moreau movie thoughts.
At the very least, ethical concerns abound.
Talk about inter-species dilemmas, ethical boundaries being pushed, and of course, a distinct departure from Mother Nature unfolding as it should: without humans severely interfering, and ultimately compromising life, every step of the way.
The plan involves growing human tissue inside the likes of pigs and sheep, so that livers, hearts and other organs can be created and used for transplants. Such injections of cells from one species into the embryo of another creates mixtures that are referred to as “chimeras.” In the case of incubating human organs in farm animals, human-animal chimeras are created.(1)
The NIH’s stance: not funding these Franken-efforts
The eyebrow-raising technique has drawn criticism from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who just a few months ago, reversed their previously-held decision about such methods. A September 2015 announcement by NIH said that, “The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is informing the research community that it will not fund research in which human pluripotent cells are introduced into non-human vertebrate animal pre-gastrulation stage embryos while the Agency considers a possible policy revision in this area.” The agency goes on to say that, “NIH will not consider requests for administrative supplements or revisions to any grants or modification to R&D contracts that include costs for or involve research introducing human pluripotent cells into non-human vertebrate animal pre-gastrulation stage embryos. Ongoing NIH awards will be addressed with the awardees on a case-by-case basis.”(1,2)
The NIH, therefore, has made it clear that they frown on the idea across the board, ranging from current research funding requests and contract proposals which are pending submission, to peer reviewed competing applications. It was the discovery that such efforts were occurring from other funding sources (including a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Army that will focus on growing human hearts in swine), that spurred the NIH to make such declarations.(1,2)
Researchers pressing forward despite ‘negativity towards all chimerism studies’
In particular, three research teams are said to be involved with human-animal chimera efforts (two in California and one from the University of Minnesota). Despite there not being any published scientific papers touting these teams’ so-called successes, MIT Technology Review believes that approximately 20 pregnancies of pig-human or sheep-human chimeras have taken place over the past year in the United States. However, none of these animals have been brought to term.(1)
As you might guess, human-animal chimera advocates are scratching their heads over the NIH’s funding decisions, most notably in a letter touting the benefits of growing human organs in farm animals. The letter, penned by several university professionals, including Daniel Garry, a cardiologist who leads a chimera project at the University of Minnesota, states, “By eliminating federal funding for this research, the NIH casts a shadow of negativity towards all chimerism studies regardless of whether human cells are involved.” The letter appeared in Science magazine, where the authors also state their collective belief that such efforts are essential for learning purposes, including gaining an understanding of disease, development and therapeutic discoveries.(3)
Animals with human hair and human intelligence on the horizon?
On the flip side, are those who fear that some of these animals might end up taking on behaviors and physical characteristics that are eerily representative of humans. We’re talking about animals with a close to human-like thinking ability, or perhaps ending up with patches of human hair. “We are not near the island of Dr. Moreau, but science moves fast,” says NIH ethicist David Resnik. However, the says that, “The specter of an intelligent mouse stuck in a laboratory somewhere screaming ‘I want to get out’ would be very troubling to people.” The scenario he presents is worrisome to many people, although Hiromitsu Nakauchi says he’s not concerned.
Nakauchi is a stem-cell biologist at Stanford University who has attempted to make human-sheep chimeras. The picture painted by Resnik, he feels, is an over-exaggeration. “If the extent of human cells is 0.5 percent,” he says, “it’s very unlikely to get thinking pigs or standing sheep. But if it’s large, like 40 percent, then we’d have to do something about that.”
Sources for this article include: