Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Are Human -Animal Hybrids On The Horizon?

Humanimal creations from 'Island of Doctor Moreau'.

In the 1996 sci fi  cult classic  'The Island of Dr. Moreau' we beheld the nightmare world of human-animal hybrids/chimeras run amuck, thanks to a crazed bio-geneticist. He practiced his depraved experiments on human captives using  assorted techniques to transform them into semi-beasts as well as create new ones via human-animal reproduction. Is any of this really possible?

This has been done already to some extent with mouse-human hybridomas, though none of these were allowed to get to a stage of mitosis past about 22 divisions. In Vance Packard's notable shocker, The People Shapers, he described how the Chinese had reached the stage of more than 10,000 mitotic divisions for an ape-human hybridoma, before it became unstable. Evidently, they had planned to augment their then three million man army using ape-human fighters.

While the thought of facing a mass of ape-human soldiers is probably appalling, I don't believe it is nearly as appalling as some recent efforts to infuse human stem cells into animal brains, which could lead to human like thought in the animals so affected. But is it really ethical to confer human like thought on a hog about to be slaughtered? Can we not say that such an effort must be deemed not only unethical but barbaric?

Much of this work is being considered and promoted by the N.I.H for the obvious reason that it may shed more light on human health issues and maladies, say like Alzheimer's disease. However, N.I.H. has been careful to keep a ban on any potential breeding of humans and animals, such as the goodly Dr.Moreau conducted on his island.

Good thing, also when the studies got underway N.I.H had no projects in the pipeline involving human-animal chimeras - a term derived from mythology referring to creatures part goat, part snake and part lion. But according to Renate Myles quoted in a NY Times piece (Aug. 13):

"We watch the state of the science and knew where this was heading".

The Times then cites two types of experiments being considered for N.I.H. funding:

1) The addition of human stem cells to the embryos of animals before the embryos reach a stage where organs are starting to develop. The danger clearly is that if human stem cells are added too early -  especially to a close primate relative like monkeys or chimps  - there would be a real risk of engendering a human-monkey or human -chimp chimera.  Hence, one waits until the animal embryo is more fully developed before adding the human stem cells.

2) The focus in these second types of experiment is on introducing, human stem cells  into the brains of rodents say, or better snakes, apes or maybe alligators. But N.I.H. spokespersons insist these experiments are "of particular concern". And why wouldn't they be? Would you really want human "smart" rats or gators roaming around, with even a rudimentary ability to plan attacks like a human might? I think not.

But the N.I.H. has made it abundantly clear (ibid) it will "continue its ban on funding any research that could result in an animal with human sperm and eggs that would then be bred".

Note, however, that all of the N.I.H. proposals and limits on experiments only apply to work financed by taxpayer money. Research funded by private donors would not be affected. In effect, if some mad Dr. Moreau type of Svengali character wanted to experiment using human sperm and say chimp eggs there would be no controls on him - at least from N.I.H.

Many of the new experiments being considered are "disturbing to many".  For example, Jeffrey P. Kahn of Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics points to two looming ethical issues:

1) To decide if there is a fundamental difference between adding DNA from one species into another- using the technology now employed for creating genetically modified foods.

2) To decide where to draw a human boundary - say for an entity created this way.  Related to this, if it is okay to put human cells into an animal can we also put animal cells into a human? If more and more human cells are added to an animal at what point is the result different from adding more and more animal cells to a human embryo?

Is creating a rat-like (rattish?) human baby (with a small ratty tail and slightly pointed ears)  worse say, than engendering a baby rat with a few human features - say like piercing blue eyes and developed nose?

Dr. Kahn pointedly asks (ibid.):

"What are we doing when we mix the traits of two species? What makes us human? Is it having 51 percent human cells?"

Maybe we need to ask Dr.Moreau.

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