Scientists are successfully creating “Chimeras” along with controversy.

John Hoke dropped me an email pointing to this article at National Geographic News that reports on the controversy over the recent successes scientists have had in creating chimeras. Chimeras—named after the mythological creature that was composed of a lion’s head, goat’s body, and serpent’s tail— are animal-human hybrid organisms created in the laboratory for research into possible new medical treatments.

Chinese scientists are credited with the first success back in 2003 when they fused human cells with rabbit eggs which they allowed to develop for a few days before destroying them to harvest the stem cells. Then last year researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota created pigs that had hybrid pig-human blood, University of Nevada scientists have created sheep with livers that are up to 80 percent human, and over at Stanford University in California there are mice with brains that are 1% human. Needless to say all of this fusing of genetic material between species is raising some big questions and sparking off some heated debates. It should be noted that chimeras of a sort have existed for awhile prior to the Chinese experiments—anyone who’s had a heart valve replaced with one from a cow or pig is technically a chimera. It’s the means and amount of blending that’s causing the ruckus:

Biotechnology activist Jeremy Rifkin is opposed to crossing species boundaries, because he believes animals have the right to exist without being tampered with or crossed with another species.

He concedes that these studies would lead to some medical breakthroughs. Still, they should not be done.

“There are other ways to advance medicine and human health besides going out into the strange, brave new world of chimeric animals,” Rifkin said, adding that sophisticated computer models can substitute for experimentation on live animals.

“One doesn’t have to be religious or into animal rights to think this doesn’t make sense,” he continued. “It’s the scientists who want to do this. They’ve now gone over the edge into the pathological domain.”

David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, believes the real worry is whether or not chimeras will be put to uses that are problematic, risky, or dangerous.

For example, an experiment that would raise concerns, he said, is genetically engineering mice to produce human sperm and eggs, then doing in vitro fertilization to produce a child whose parents are a pair of mice.

“Most people would find that problematic,” Magnus said, “but those uses are bizarre and not, to the best of my knowledge, anything that anybody is remotely contemplating. Most uses of chimeras are actually much more relevant to practical concerns.”

This debate has been ongoing for awhile already. I came across practically the same news item at at the Washington Post from back in November. In that article they go a little more in-depth into some of the possible scenarios that could arise from this sort of research:

Imagine, said Robert Streiffer, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, a human-chimpanzee chimera endowed with speech and an enhanced potential to learn—what some have called a “humanzee.”

“There’s a knee-jerk reaction that enhancing the moral status of an animal is bad,” Streiffer said. “But if you did it, and you gave it the protections it deserves, how could the animal complain?”

Unfortunately, said Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel, speaking last fall at a meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics, such protections are unlikely.

“Chances are we would make them perform menial jobs or dangerous jobs,” Sandel said. “That would be an objection.”

Irving Weissman, the man who created the mice with 1% human brains, is considering an experiment sometime this year that would create mice with brains that are 100% human in part so he can study Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease, but what would be the result? Is it possible that these mice could end up as sentient creatures? It’s likely the smaller size of the mouse brain would make that unlikely, but it’s not impossible. Experiments by Evan Balaban over a decade ago showed the potential research potential of chimeras when she took small sections of brain from developing quails and transplanted them into the developing brains of chickens:

The resulting chickens exhibited vocal trills and head bobs unique to quails, proving that the transplanted parts of the brain contained the neural circuitry for quail calls. It also offered astonishing proof that complex behaviors could be transferred across species.

There’s a much bigger difference between a human and mouse brain than there is between a quail and chicken brain, but it still raises some potentially troublesome questions. Weisman feels he has a solution to that problem. Granted, it’s not a very elegant solution, but it is a practical one:

He proposes keeping tabs on the mice as they develop. If the brains look as if they are taking on a distinctly human architecture—a development that could hint at a glimmer of humanness—they could be killed, he said. If they look as if they are organizing themselves in a mouse brain architecture, they could be used for research.

Which side of the debate you come down on probably has a lot to do with how different you view humans and animals. The more religiously inclined naturally tend to see this as a “very bad thing” in part because of the cliche about the dangers of encroaching on God’s turf and in part because they feel it in some way destroys the dignity inherent in being human. Not that there aren’t scientists who feel this may be pushing boundaries too far toward the escapades of the fictional Dr. Moreau, but the differences in opinion tend to fall along the lines you’d expect them to with the more scientifically inclined less opposed.  John has mixed feelings on the issue. Me, not so much. I’m for the research as long as careful consideration over what is being done and what its potential ramifications might be is kept forefront.

The more interesting aspect of this research for me is how it helps to prove the Theory of Evolution. This research wouldn’t be possible if Evolution and its implications weren’t true. I’d really love to hear a Creationism or Intelligent Design advocate explain how these hybrids are possible in the confines of their “theories.” The ID folks at least will own up to micro-evolutionary processes within a species because there’s no other reasonable way to explain how viruses develop new strains, but they maintain that macro-evolution isn’t possible. Yet if we are not basically the end product of a long line of evolutionary changes as is proposed by the theory of Evolution then how is it possible for scientists to create such hybrids? Prayer?

22 thoughts on “Scientists are successfully creating “Chimeras” along with controversy.

  1. I am all for the research, I just think there needs to be a ‘deadman switch’ built into it …

    I was a bit over the top with the Dr. Moreau reference, but where one draws the line between research and ‘production’ need to be kept in full view, much like your desire to keep the ramifications of the research in full view.

    My concern is the research done outside the spotlight… funded projects will be fine, they have alot of oversight, ethics reviews, etc… but skunkworks projects have none and could do more harm than good to the other researchers 🙁

  2. I hold no opinion on this issue.  I wonder, however, with all the ethical considerations going into this, what do you all think about cracking open Dr. Mengele’s journals?  I have heard this is a pretty heated debate.  The journals are still around and there is supposedly tons of advances in medicine we could learn from his stuff, but is it ethical because of the price paid fro the info.  Is their a relation between the ethical problems facing this as well as chimera creation?  Just wondering what opinions you all have.

  3. what do you all think about cracking open Dr. Mengele’s journals?

    I think the journals are already there, the damage has already been done, if some good can be gained from them now, it needs to happen. It is no more unethical to open Mengele’s journals than it is to question a serial killer about his motives in order to understand what makes him do the things he’s done.

  4. I’m probably a good deal less concerned about this than I ought to be, largely because I think trying to put a Stop To Such Stuff and declaring certain endeavors as Man Usurping God’s Domain (or whatever other Portentious Declaration one wants to make, cf. Rifkin) is useless.  If it can be done, it will be done.

    The question, then, is how we handle it when it does happen.  How we define (or redefine) humanity (trying to (re)define marriage may be a pale predecessor to this) is going to be a long, arduous, and likely bloody process.

    For what it’s worth, though, being confronted by that question may make us a better species (or species continuum) for all that—and better prepare us for any hypothetical encounter with extraterrestrial visitors.

  5. I just fear the specter of a reverse process.  What if we “make” a human with a brain thats not wired for thinking.  Who “owns” the chimera?  Will it be property of some mega corp?

      Oh and the ID’er will probably say something about “Its the Devils Handiwork” or some such.

  6. My perspective on this stems from evolution as well.  I see culture as an adaptation of sorts—but quite possibly the most highly adaptable adaptation.  Technology is a part of culture, and I think that these technologies are therefore part of our adaptation—our evolution.  To not pursue them would be to close a door on development.  I agree that a good morality or “culture of use” should come with these new technologies.
    This is the same argument I give for stem cell research, cloning, and genetic modifications. 
    Dont think it’ll hold much water with the fundies.

    I also think it’s a crime not to use Mengele’s journals precisely because of the price paid.  After all the terror and pain they endured, for it to benefit no one is a sad, sad thing.

  7. I agree with the above statements that Mengele’s journals should be opened, dissiminated and public to all…

    Keeping them locked away is pointless, and even helps to empower them in a way.

    Besides, if there are any breakthroughs that are found within, it could be something good to come out of so much evil.

  8. One thing I can see with this chimera business going horribly, horribly wrong: disease vectors.

    When the Europeans came to this continent, they brought animals and microbes that were unknown here. The resulting mass die-offs of the Native Americans (and subsequent population explosions of birds and buffalo due to their key predator’s misfortune) were due to a complete lack of immunity. Xtian murder of the “merciless Indian savages” added insult to injury.

    There is already plenty of concern with diseases crossing the “species barrier” such as Avian Flu, BSE/Mad Cow, and others. I’m not so sure that creating such human/non-human hybrids (meatborgs?) is a good idea. The chimeric example cited above with mice should be of some concern, since the rodent-borne Hantavirus is particularly nasty and has a 50% human mortality rate.

    Re Mengele’s journals, I agree with the commenters above: publishing them can give the deaths of his victims some meaning. The concern would be the more gory details, I suppose, but I think the best disinfectant for that sort of monstrosity is the light of day.

  9. This is an excellent point:

    One thing I can see with this chimera business going horribly, horribly wrong: disease vectors.


  10. If these chimera are being used in closed, clean laboratory situations, what are the chances of such diseases even occuring in such a creature, let alone spreading?

    I agree with the idea of chimera being used for research. I think they should be considered much in the same way that animal genes are being transplanted into vegetation, for a better understanding of what has been moved, and not as something to be released into common consumption. Along those lines, I don’t think there should be much, if any, concern regarding vectors.

  11. When the Europeans came to this continent, they brought animals and microbes that were unknown here. The resulting mass die-offs of the Native Americans (and subsequent population explosions of birds and buffalo due to their key predator’s misfortune) were due to a complete lack of immunity.

    This is true as far as it goes, but has little to do with chimeras, unless someone is planning to genetically engineer cross-species bacteria or viruses.  It is conceivable, however, that new disease strains could evolve that infect chimeras, that would then be a potential danger for humans.  Strict controls are necessary, as Zach suggests.  Impossible to know what the risk/benefit balance is beforehand.

    About Mengele’s journals- check out
    for a very interesting discussion, by Baruch C. Cohen, of the scientific value and ethics of using the Nazi material.  BTW, none of it is secret- any censorship is self-imposed.  Cohen’s conclusion:

    Absolute censorship of the Nazi data does not seem proper, especially when the secrets of saving lives may lie solely in its contents. Society must decide on its use by correctly understanding the exact benefits to be gained. When the value of the Nazi data is of great value to humanity, then the morally appropriate policy would be to utilize the data, while explicitly condemning the atrocities.

    Sounds reasonable to me.

  12. I’m jumping in kind of late, but better late than never.

    As for Mengele’s journals, I’m not sure what to think a part of me thinks that the information should be released.  It seems that perhaps if that information saves lives or helps make quality of life better for some, then that good helps to atone for the harm done by Mengele.  Another part of me feels that to use Mengele’s research to some degree leads to the apparent justification to the horrors commited by Mengele, something that I don’t think should be done.  I don’t think that we should downplay the how terrible Mengele’s experiments were in any way.  I guess the only way I can think of resolving this question is to ask Holocaust survivors or the families of the victims what they want done with the journals and respect their wishes.

    As for chimeras I think it’s much ado about nothing.  When you consider that all species share commonalities in their genomes (indeed, when you consider that relatively closely though still fairly distantly related species such as rats and humans have 40% of their genomes identical and upwards to 90% of their genes with counterparts in the other species) you realize that “human gene” and “rat gene” are terms that are more figurative than anything. 

    As for worries about cross infectious materials, well those exist already and whether we monkey around with animal genomes or not they’re a fact that we have to deal with.  Most viruses are cross infections afflicting multiple species, and almost all bacteria can host in nearly any living thing that’s adequately warm and moist (though not too hot).  So I don’t see that being too much of a worry either.

    I think the only real worry with chimeras is the possibility of the contamination of wildtype genomes.  However, this is already an issue considering the numerous trans-genetic strains of laboratory animals.  Indeed, I would be far more concerned of MAO knockout mice getting loose and breeding with wild mice and disseminating a mutation that results in extra aggressive individuals, than of mice with a “human” gene getting into the breeding population.

  13. Is it possible that these mice could end up as sentient creatures?

    I have no viewpoint about “acting god”, etc. My concern is that mice (and other annimals we routinely play around with) are already sentient creatures.

    It’s already time to start treating them with more respect – no need to even get into chimeras.

  14. bryan,

    Having worked with lab animals such as mice and rats I would argue that they are sentient creatures as well (which is why I changed fields I can’t in good conscience harm and kill the lab animals anymore).  Rodents are actually fairly smart, they can learn pretty quickly to perform some very complex tasks.  I agree that lab animals deserve a lot of respect.  However, in the defense of those who do perform animal research, a lot of respect is given to the subjects of their experiments. 

    The animals are treated as well as they can be (in most cases) and great lengths are taken to ensure that the animals experience the least amount of pain and discomfort as possible.  Moreover, the protocols for housing lab animals are being to become more humane (at least in the labs where I worked).  Individuals are no longer kept in isolation in sparse environments.  In most cases animals are kept in pairs or small groups and stimulus such as hamster wheels, toys, habitrails, and things of that nature are being included in habitats.  So the animals aren’t being as mistreated as they have been in the past.

    However, I think your concerns are still valid, and it is a live question whether we should in fact perform the animal studies that we do.  To some extent I think that some animal research is justified if done humanely.  I do think that developing treatments for various illness is a worthwhile project and such research does require the use of live test subjects.  That said, I do think that some animal testing should be discontinued.  The safety testing for cosmetics and similar products for example.  Now that’s not to say that I don’t think that they should be safety tested, but they can be tested without use of animal subjects (namely through the use of human volunteers or through testing the reactivity of cell cultures to various compounds within the products being tested).

  15. One thing I can see with this chimera business going horribly, horribly wrong: disease vectors.

    Oooh…has anyone ever read ‘Fear Nothing’ by Dean Koontz? Scary!

  16. I had thoughts about the question of sentience myself as I wrote that line as it’s clear to me that sentience is present in all animals to varying degrees depending on the animal’s complexity. Chimps and Apes in particular show a stunning level of self-awareness.

    Socialist Swine pretty much sums up my thoughts on the issue of animal experimentation and I agree with him fully. As for the issues surrounding chimeras such as the disease vector possibility, that is valid point and it’s discussed in the Washington Post article I linked to. My biggest concern with regards to chimeras are the issues that arise if there is an accidental release of a chimera into the wild, particularly if it results in making the animal more dangerous. Though not a chimera itself, the accidental release of Africanized Honeybees—so called killer bees—in the Americas has been a long-standing problem we’ve not been able to resolve.

  17. Not so much gossip as much as overblown hype. The threat posed by Africanized honeybees isn’t anywhere near what the alarmists and Hollywood would have you believe, but it is still true that they are much more aggressive than your standard European honeybee. Therein lies the danger they pose. Though their stings are no more toxic than their European counterparts, their heightened attack response results in considerably more stings being delivered and they tend to stay pissed off a lot longer.

    The truth is that Africanized bees have been in the Americas since the mid-1800s and there have probably been more than a few escapes from commercial hives in that time. Beekeepers have been working on cross-breeding them for decades in part because they seem to be superior honey producers (though there is some debate over whether that’s true). In the long-run it’s a problem that may resolve on it’s own. Beekeepers report that as Africanized bees interbreed with the local varieties their offspring tend be more mellow.

    So, yeah, it’s not the greatest example, but I was working off top of my head. grin

  18. Humans as a race have almost no respect for life in general—for proof just look around the world and see what we and our fellow humans do to the environment and each other on a regular basis. I fully support this line of research in the spirit of American capitalism and efficency. Why not? We should be able to alter in any way we see fit any animal we see fit in order to maximize our own comfort and wealth. Better a pig or a goat than a fellow human—would’nt you say? Personnally I am looking forward to the day when I can acheive the dream many shallow, self-centered American slobs have and that is having a horse cock grafted onto my frame. I beleive I would call myself Mr. Ed and make my porn star fantasy come true! As far as altering animals by making them intelligent to do dangerous or menial tasks—well we really don’t need this because we have third world immigrants whom we could give guest worker visas to that are perfectly willing and capable of doing these jobs. There are billions of poor people whom we have’nt even exploited yet so why risk a real life planet of the apes.

  19. Rufus-Leroy,

    Humans as a race have almost no respect for life in general

    That’s not entirely true, there are some cultures that have historically been quite respectful of other living creatures.  The problem is that the currently dominant culture isn’t particularly.  However, I would say that’s starting to change as well.  People seem to be in general becoming more aware of issues to do with animal rights and sustainable environmental policy.  This is not to say that everyone is getting on board.  Indeed, if the past elections are indicative of the average American’s awareness of the above mentioned issues then there is a slim majority that are guilty of the charges you set forth.  However, 50 years ago (and likely much more recently) people probably were far less educated regarding the issues mentioned in this thread.

  20. Before I begin I would like to state my position on this topic. I have no problems with the creation of such hybrids and neither am I against the use of cloning as a means for reproduction. That is provided that it is done safely and by safe I do not refer to perfect but that it is within acceptable risks, much like other medical procedures and drugs.

    Now to answer the questions posed initially.
    1) Creationism
    The creation (pun?) of these hybrids is proof that there is a supreme being. These hybrids only appeared through the hands of humans rather than nature. Therefore by comparison, humans and other lifeforms can only be created through the hands of a superior being. In other words, they will use Thomas Aquinas official Church “proof” of god, that of a hierachy of beings and ultimately a divine creator

    2) Using Religion to Support creation of Chimeras
    Religion can be used to support such Chimeras. We start with the religious premise that life is the greatest gift from god, which is why certain religions are against euthanasia because life is a gift from god and on has no right to take it away.

    Thus if life is a gift from god it means that humans cannot create life. But if the chimeras are living then they are obviously alive. And if they are alive then god must have wanted them to be alive and have also given the gift of life to these chimeras and clones. And if one is to stop the creation of such life one is in effect going against god’s word and preventing such life. Thus if one is of a religious inclination against the use of contraceptives or abortion because it is against god then they too must oppose people preventing the creation of clones and chimeras.

    3) Against such creations without religion
    The declaration of human rights and many constitutions of countries all include some aspects on the dignity of human life and that one should not treat humans as property be it through an explicit mention or implicit such as prevention of slavery.

    By experimenting on such chimera’s especially if human parts are invovled or cloning of humans they are in effect turning humans into a product that can be used and exploited thus affecting the integrity of humans.

    Furthermore even if one does not feel that such experiments affect the integrity of humans, then surely allowing someone to patent such lifeforms would be resulting in commodifying humans. Lifeforms such as the Harvard Oncomouse (mouse genetically engineered to be more suceptible to cancer and also brought millions for Harvard) have been patented in US but was not allowed in Canada. Allowing one to patent a mouse is one thing but to patent a human being is quite another.

    The attack on patent protection is an indirect attack. It would effectively mean that, unless the research is fully funded by the government or through donations, no one would spend millions creating a product that cannot be protected.

    Note: Using terms like higher and lower life forms would give the suggestion of religion, specifically Judeo Christian religion, which is why I did not mention it above.

  21. I am very confused on the whole matter. While I am against the matter when it comes to speading diseases that were in animal species, to the human species and causing great epidemic issues, I see the benefits for society. I am having a difficult time trying to sort gossip from reality on what scientists have experimented on. I don’t agree that using human embryo cells is ethical, but growing a liver could have a life! The whole subject has got me in a deep quandry. >_


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