Chimeras and Bioethics
August 25, 2016
This week on The Digital Life, we discuss human-animal chimeras and bioethics. If you know your Greek mythology, you might be familiar with the chimera — a monstrous fire-breathing hybrid creature, part lion, part goat, with a tail that ends in a snake’s head. Today, the term chimera is used in embryology to describe a hybrid organism that has tissues from multiple species. And there’s interest in producing chimeras for studying disease pathology, testing drugs, and eventually organ transplantation.
Last year, however, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said it wouldn’t support this research and banned funding for it, due to bioethical and animal welfare concerns. Now, the NIH is requesting public comment on a proposal to amend sections of their guidelines for human stem cell research on the proposed scope of certain human-animal chimera research.
You Can Soon Grow Human-Animal Hybrids, But You Can’t Breed ‘Em
Strange Beasts: Why Human-Animal Chimeras Might Be Coming
NIH consideration of certain research proposals involving human-animal chimera models
Scientists have worked on this kind of research for years high in the hopes of being able to do just that, or you know, at the very least you know begin to understand how they might how they might go in that direction. However in November of 2015 that a National Institutes of Health decided that there were enough bioethical in animal welfare concerns about chimera research that they they put a ban on funding this type of research. Just now they’ve released a request for public comment around a a proposal to amend sections of their guidelines for human stem cell research around the proposed scope of human animal chimera research. We have until September 6th if you’re part of the public that wants to comment. You can go on the and NIH website up until September 6th and give your thoughts to that agency.
There there are so many aspects to this very promising technology that can make you feel uneasy if you’re not familiar with with the history of it. There’s there’s also a point worth making that for cardiac patients who have problems with the valves in their heart, we’re already implanting animal valves from bovine or porcine or, whatever the … equine is the one.
Dirk what what’s your impression of the NIH re-opening this research potentially to research scientists?
I think that science and research science in particular needs to engage more with the public and public discussion just because there is so much technology right now that is potentially scary and potentially very helpful to the human condition, but in order to bring people along or at least to set the boundaries in ways that are beneficial for both research science and the general public in the long term I think the process that the NIH is embarking on is correct and probably needs to be replicated more often when it comes to these kinds of discussions.
In the short term it’s very easy to say what the NIH is doing is correct and it’s the safe way to proceed, but who knows how the future will look back on that if China gets way ahead and does some wacky unpredictable things. Things that we literally can’t protect because the possibilities of what could come out of these sciences and technologies are so beyond the pale of what we might imagine in our limited little world today. History might frown on the NIH’s conservativism and being being careful.
Look, nuclear weapons, that research was an example of the United States having cowboy unfettered ethical … just jumping into this technology that is frankly a horrifying technology. You could argue that it’s on the back of that technology that the the late twentieth century U.S. as one of the dual superpowers of the world along with the Soviet Union was built. Are there things in the gray … I’ll use grey instead of black. I’ll be a little more … I’ll grant a little bit more grace to China but in the grey ethical scientific community or sub communities or sub sub communities within China are things happening now that will radically change the balance of power, the very structure and framing of the world in the decades and centuries ahead; wery well could be.
I’m kind of sprouting beyond just chimeras at this point but chimeras are a good test case because they’re so freaky, at least to me. I don’t know if it is to you as well but the idea of … even though it wouldn’t surprise me to see it, the idea of actually seeing a picture of some bizarre hybrid like that, it’s scary, it’s weird, it’s really unsettling actually.
It’s, I was going to say for a long time, I don’t know how many years, but for certainly a number of years now there’s been the notion of, we’re gonna get to the point where we’re going to harvest organs, and so there’s this abstract idea of this tray with a lot of ears growing on it. That’s weird enough in a certain way. I can certainly get there, but it’s bizarre. Once you’re talking about living creatures that are hybridizing with humanity, it’s fascinating but for me very scary stuff.
Certainly, this research science is decades old and the potential for gene editing techniques like CRISPR which has exploded into the popular consciousness over the past 6 to 9 months, that I think might have been the impetus for the NIH to at least open up these comments again just because it’s now so much easier or potentially so much easier to do if you can make these kinds of gene edits in conjunction with the stem cell techniques that they were already exploring.
To get back to my original thought around the term itself which is a term for a monster, it’s definitely coloring our thoughts and our discussion a bit. I don’t know where I fall on the spectrum of rejection or acceptance of this technology but I find the … For me personally the thought of public discussion is a good thing because I want to hear what better informed people think as we’re mapping out these ethical guidelines. I generally think that this kind of public discussion is required for a whole host of technologies. Some of these discussions we’re having and some we’re not.
It must be a great time to be a philosopher. In the 1990’s when I was in university I took a lot of philosophy classes and it was almost all theoretical at that point. like. When you were talking about practical and applied philosophy, most of it was in the realm of medical ethics and stuff. It was really narrow.
Now, as science and technology, engineering, business are thrusting us into these applied real world complicated situations that take what used to be these lofty theoretical things and make them concrete and real and applied, and things that we’re not figuring out proactively ahead of time to get to a smart place but trying to reactively scramble to in real time. Probably often behind … the commercialization is dragging the ethicists and philosophers behind which probably isn’t super smart but the problem again is you have nation states like China, Russia that are going to dive into the grey ethical areas with both feet and it sucks us all along for the ride.
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