Human/Animal Chimeras

There has been much ado recently about a study whose results have not even been published yet. This is rare. Usually the media does not report on a study until it is published and, even then, not all studies are picked up by the media. However, this study, and, more importantly, its implications, that have gotten the media’s attention. This is with good reason. The, as yet unpublished study, is discussing combining human and monkey cells together into an embryo.  The resulting embryo is called a chimera.

This is not the first time that human cells have been inserted into an animal embryo. Human cells have been put in animals like mice, sheep, and pigs.  However, because those animals are not related to humans, such experiments have been incredibly difficult.  These researchers are hoping that, since monkeys are purportedly man’s closest relatives, that these issues can be avoided.  Obviously, since monkey and man are not related, they will be disappointed. That said, the purpose of these experiments is to hopefully find a way to grow human organs inside animals. This would hopefully lessen the dependence on human organ donors.

While this goal is very noble and would be wonderful to achieve, there are all sorts of ethical issues involved in this study, even ignoring the fact that humans are made in God’s image and thus should not be subjected to these kinds of experiments. There is a reason why the study is being conducted in China, which has loose regulations on this sort of work, rather than the US where ethical restrictions are stronger. Probably the first and most obvious implication comes from the kind of cell being used. Though details are sketchy since the study has yet to be published, they are using stem cells.  That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on which type of stem cells they are using. If they are using adult stem cells, there are no ethical concerns on that front. If they are using embryonic stem cells, there are all manner of ethical concerns because embryonic stem cells come from aborted babies.

Assuming that they use adult stem cells, there are still ethical concerns left. The first once comes from the possibility that they could produce consciousness, however slight, in the chimera. I do not find this possibility too likely, but it is possible. However, another possibility is that the human cells will spread from the organ they were intended for and end up in other places, like the brain or other organs.  How human is this creature at that point? Should it get some form of rights? This kind of research raises those kinds of ethical questions.

Further, since they are killing the embryos after a very short time, other ethical questions are raised. Are these embryos human or not? Does adding just a few human cells make something human? Probably not, but even so the question has to be asked.

Probably the most concerning thing to come out of these experiments is the attitude these researchers have toward human life. One researcher who is not associated with the study told The Guardian “I don’t think it is particularly concerning in terms of the ethics, because you are not taking them far enough to have a nervous system or develop in any way—it’s just really a ball of cells.” Now, where have we heard that ball of cells argument before? If you’re thinking that is the standard abortion argument, you are not alone.  Yes I know these cells are not all human, but the principle involved here is worrisome. If they are so dismissive about something that is partially human, could not that attitude be extended to fully human cells and babies?

While I am usually very much in favor of progress in genetics, this is an area where I have to be incredibly skeptical.  I understand why these researchers are interested in this topic. Organ donations save thousands of lives every year and donor organs are hard to come by, particularly for some blood types. However, in this instance, I am skeptical that these organs could even be used.  Given the ethical implications involved, I believe there are wiser methods to create organs,.

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