The fictional world of Planet of the Apes, where an intelligent group of apes enslaves humans, may be closer to reality after scientists announced that they’ve successfully created embryos that mix human and monkey cells.
Announced in the scientific journal, Cell, the embryos have the “potential to provide large quantities of in-vivo-generated human cells, tissues, and organs for regenerative medicine applications, including organ transplantation.”
Scientists who participated in the research were attempting to address the issue of organ transplant.
“This is one of the major problems in medicine—organ transplantation,” explained Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, Calif. “The demand for that is much higher than the supply.”
This is true.
There are roughly 100,000 people on the organ donation list, according to Donate Life America, an organization that looks to “increase the number of donated organs, eyes and tissues available to save and heal lives through transplantation while developing a culture where donation is embraced as a fundamental human responsibility.”
“I don’t see this type of research being ethically problematic,” Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University and Harvard University, said. “It’s aimed at lofty humanitarian goals.”
But should scientists create chimera embryos in pursuit of those “humanitarian goals?” No, and other researchers agree.
“My first question is: Why?” Kristin Matthews said. She’s a fellow for science and technology at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “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.”
Everyday someone dies waiting for a donated organ. Scientists have tried to utilize sheep and pig embryos in similar experiments using human stem cells. The results were disappointing, so they’ve now moved on to macaque monkeys, who are genetically closer to humans.
As reported by NPR, “After one day, the researchers reported, they were able to detect human cells growing in 132 of the embryos and were able to study the embryos for up to 19 days. That enabled the scientists to learn more about how animal cells and human cells communicate, an important step toward eventually helping researchers find new ways to grow organs for transplantation in other animals, Belmonte said.”
In response to potential concerns and criticisms, Belmonte explained, “Our goal is not to generate any new organism, any monster. And we are not doing anything like that. We are trying to understand how cells from different organisms communicate with each other.”
Others don’t necessarily agree.
Dr. Anna Smajor, who is a lecturer and researcher in biomedical ethics at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School in the U.K. told Sky News that “this breakthrough reinforces an increasingly inescapable fact: biological categories are not fixed they are fluid.
“This poses significant ethical and legal challenges.”
She also said, “The scientists behind this research state that these chimeric embryos offer new opportunities, because ‘we are unable to conduct certain types of experiments in humans.’
“But whether these embryos are human or not is up to question.”
Professor Julian Savulescu of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics also expressed concerns, stating, “This research opens Pandora’s box to human-nonhuman chimeras.
“These embryos are destroyed at 20 days of development, but it is only a matter of time before human-nonhuman chimeras are successfully developed, perhaps as a source of organs for humans. That is one of the long-term goals of this research.
“The key ethical question is: what is the moral status of these novel creatures? Before any experiments are performed on live-born chimeras, or their organs extracted, it is essential that their mental capacities and lives are properly assessed.”
So, will this research help secure organs for those in need, as the researchers hope, or become an out-of-control scientific experiment leading to chimps with human level intelligence taking over the world? It’s up for debate, but the implications for life and the seeming violation of God’s creation are profound.
As Ian Malcolm from the movie Jurassic Park famously said, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t’ stop to think if they should.”
Though the movie may be fiction, the quote fits.
Photo from Weizhi Ji, Kunming University of Science and Technology