Scientists have created embryos for the first time that are part human and part monkey, according to a new study released in the journal Cell on Thursday.
The team of scientists who collaborated on the study stated the embryos were created as research for new ways to produce organs for organ transplants. However, the research has been controversial within the science community, with some bioethicists debating the ethics behind the creation.
“My first question is: Why?” Kirstin Matthews, a fellow for science and technology at Rice University’s Baker Institute, told NPR. “I think the public is going to be concerned, and I am as well, that we’re just kind of pushing forward with science without having a proper conversation about what we should or should not do.”
The ethical concerns vary. One is that the research could go further and result in someone trying to create a fetus, in which the brain that develops would also be part human, part animal. Such entities are known as chimeras, stemming from Greek mythology.
“Should it be regulated as human because it has a significant proportion of human cells in it? Or should it be regulated just as an animal? Or something else?” Matthews said. “At what point are you taking something and using it for organs when it actually is starting to think and have logic?”
Another leading worry is the possibility it produces animals that then carry human sperm or eggs.
“Nobody really wants monkeys walking around with human eggs and human sperm inside them. Because if a monkey with human sperm meets a monkey with human eggs, nobody wants a human embryo inside a monkey’s uterus,” said Hank Greely, a Stanford University bioethicist. Greely co-wrote an article in the same issue of Cell critiquing this line of research, though he noted that the specific study in question was carried out ethically.
However, the scientists involved in the study stand behind their research and say it could be instrumental in solving one of medicine’s biggest issues.
“This is one of the major problems in medicine — organ transplantation,” Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences and a co-author of the study, told NPR. “The demand for that is much higher than the supply.”
This is not the first time scientists have created a human-animal hybrid embryo. Twenty-one years ago, J. Bottum wrote in The Weekly Standard:
ON THURSDAY, OCTOBER 5, it was revealed that biotechnology researchers had successfully created a hybrid of a human being and a pig. A man-pig. A pig-man. The reality is so unspeakable, the words themselves don’t want to go together.
Extracting the nuclei of cells from a human fetus and inserting them into a pig’s egg cells, scientists from an Australian company called Stem Cell Sciences and an American company called Biotransplant grew two of the pig-men to 32-cell embryos before destroying them. The embryos would have grown further, the scientists admitted, if they had been implanted in the womb of either a sow or a woman. Either a sow or a woman. A woman or a sow.
There has been some suggestion from the creators that their purpose in designing this human pig is to build a new race of subhuman creatures for scientific and medical use. The only intended use is to make animals, the head of Stem Cell Sciences, Peter Mountford, claimed last week, backpedaling furiously once news of the pig-man leaked out of the European Union’s patent office. Since the creatures are 3 percent pig, laws against the use of people as research subjects would not apply. But since they are 97 percent human, experiments could be profitably undertaken upon them and they could be used as living meat-lockers for transplantable organs and tissue.
But then, too, there has been some suggestion that the creators’ purpose is not so much to corrupt humanity as to elevate it. The creation of the pig-man is proof that we can overcome the genetic barriers that once prevented cross-breeding between humans and other species. At last, then, we may begin to design a new race of beings with perfections that the mere human species lacks: increased strength, enhanced beauty, extended range of life, immunity from disease. “In the extreme theoretical sense,” Mountford admitted, the embryos could have been implanted into a woman to become a new kind of human — though, of course, he reassured the Australian media, something like that would be “ethically immoral, and it’s not something that our company or any respectable scientist would pursue.”
But what difference does it make whether the researchers’ intention is to create subhumans or superhumans? Either they want to make a race of slaves, or they want to make a race of masters. And either way, it means the end of our humanity.
You can’t say we weren’t warned. This is the island of Dr. Moreau. This is the brave new world. This is Dr. Frankenstein’s chamber. This is Dr. Jekyll’s room. This is Satan’s Pandemonium, the city of self-destruction the rebel angels wrought in their all-consuming pride.
Notice that the justification scientists in the monkey man case use for what they have done is to aid in solving the problems of organ transplants. We have become the sort of people who will accept anything if it promises to deliver us from suffering. Bottum understood this 21 years ago:
Like the coming true of an old story — the discovery of the philosopher’s stone, the rubbing of a magic lantern — biotechnology is delivering the most astonishing medical advances anyone has ever imagined. You and I will live for many years in youthful health: Our cancers, our senilities, our coughs, and our infirmities all swept away on the triumphant, cresting wave of science.
But our sons and our daughters will mate with the pig-men, if the pig-men will have them. And our swine-snouted grandchildren — the fruit not of our loins, but of our arrogance and our bright test tubes — will use the story of our generation to teach a moral to their frightened litters.
Amazingly, there are still people who say that I am too pessimistic, too alarmist, about the state of mankind.