Chimeras, Clones and Chaos

H.G. Wells is particularly remembered for his great works of science fiction, especially The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, both of which have been filmed several times. (THREE different versions of The War of the Worlds were released in 2005. For details, check out imdb.com.)

Apart from The Time Machine, my favorite Wells novel is The Island of Doctor Moreau, about a mad scientist obsessed with the idea of turning animals into humans by means of agonizing surgery. I find it the most memorable of his books, particularly because Wells is able to introduce a subtle humanity through Moreau’s brutality.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to an article by Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte in the November 2016 Scientific American which proposes growing human organs in pigs and cows in order to increase the supply for the transplant market and ultimately save many thousands of human lives.

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Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte

According to Professor Belmonte, every day 16 people in Europe and 22 in the U.S. die while waiting for replacement organs – a number which increases as populations age and transplant technologies improve. Professor Belmonte is no Moreau; but there is a connection.

The idea sounds wonderful.  More organ transplants = more lives saved. These scientists are actually producing a chimera (or chimaera) – an organism containing tissues from genetically different organisms, which Belmonte compares to “the mythical griffin, which sports the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion.”

The key to the technology is causing cells to revert to a pluripotent state, which can develop into many different cell types: for example, changing skin cells to brain or blood cells, and using them to heal damaged organs.

Recently, these developments allowed Belmonte’s team to partially cure mice with hereditary blindness, and they hope that this success can be repeated and even improved in humans. Who could fail to be excited at this opportunity to give sight to the blind?

But notice what is happening here. These scientists are producing animals which are part-pig (well, mostly pig) and part-human. Is this a problem? For some people, probably not. The prospect of producing some undesired result is greatly outweighed by all the good the technology can do.

Pig
This animal is ALL pig

Granted, there are many problems to be overcome, such as how to obtain stem cells of high enough quality. But perhaps they can overcome that.

Most impressively, Belmonte has made an amazing commitment to ethical science, spending a year and a half working closely with ethicists to develop ethical guidelines for their work. But the problems are not solved yet.

Three types of cells cannot be used in this work. Human sperm and eggs must be avoided; even the very remote possibility of pigs or cows breeding human offspring is something too horrible to contemplate. The other type of cells to be absolutely avoided is nerve cells. “Imagine the ethical nightmare,” Belmonte says, “if enough human nerves populated a pig’s brain that it became capable of higher-level reasoning.”

One alternative that would work would be human embryonic stem cells from IVF clinics; but just using them would involve serious ethical problems, because these cells are obtained by tearing apart live human embryos. So they are sticking with animals.

If the project becomes workable, they plan to delete the genetic program for development of nerve cells from all human cells before injecting them. This means that only pig nerve cells could grow.

But my question is: “What is the next step?”

If scientists produce their human-pig chimera, what comes next? Surely nobody believes this experiment will just happen and save lots of lives and that will be the end of it.

There’s always a “next step.”

There is every possibility that whoever undertakes these next steps will be less ethically responsible than Belmonte’s group. Will they be as careful to exclude the hybridization of human and pig cells? Will they be as careful to ensure that they do not create hybridized organs?

The other question is: Will there be any other unintended consequences? This is the sort of activity referred to as “playing God,” but the difference is that God knows what he is doing, while the rest of us are still guessing.

 * A bit like the idea of introducing cane toads in 1935 to wipe out the beetles destroying Australia’s sugar cane crop.

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