Still from the dark sci-fi film, Splice (2009), which depicted a secret lab experiment with a human-animal chimera as the main character. Image Source: Collider. The trailer is here, and full film (while the link lasts) is here © Warner Bros., reproduced under Fair Use.
On 6 January 2016, MIT Technology Review published an article about US government monitoring of the bio-tech sector as labs create human-animal chimeras and farms grow human organs inside pigs and sheep. The National Institutes of Health expressed concern because embryonic chimeras are in danger of developing expanded human consciousness and tried to slow the rapid pace of scientific experimentation by cutting labs' funding. It didn't work; the labs immediately found money elsewhere:
The US National Institutes of Health investigation is entitled, NIH Research Involving Introduction of Human Pluripotent Cells into Non-Human Vertebrate Animal Pre-Gastrulation Embryos. Researchers who brought their work up for scrutiny remain frustrated by its negative public image because they see the medical value of their contributions.The effort to incubate organs in farm animals is ethically charged because it involves adding human cells to animal embryos in ways that could blur the line between species.Last September , in a reversal of earlier policy, the National Institutes of Health announced it would not support studies involving such “human-animal chimeras” until it had reviewed the scientific and social implications more closely.The agency, in a statement, said it was worried about the chance that animals’ “cognitive state” could be altered if they ended up with human brain cells.The NIH action was triggered after it learned that scientists had begun such experiments with support from other funding sources, including from California’s state stem-cell agency. The human-animal mixtures are being created by injecting human stem cells into days-old animal embryos, then gestating these in female livestock.Based on interviews with three teams, two in California and one in Minnesota, MIT Technology Review estimates that about 20 pregnancies of pig-human or sheep-human chimeras have been established during the last 12 months in the U.S., though so far no scientific paper describing the work has been published, and none of the animals were brought to term. ...The experiments rely on a cutting-edge fusion of technologies, including recent breakthroughs in stem-cell biology and gene-editing techniques. By modifying genes, scientists can now easily change the DNA in pig or sheep embryos so that they are genetically incapable of forming a specific tissue. Then, by adding stem cells from a person, they hope the human cells will take over the job of forming the missing organ, which could then be harvested from the animal for use in a transplant operation.“We can make an animal without a heart. We have engineered pigs that lack skeletal muscles and blood vessels,” says Daniel Garry, a cardiologist who leads a chimera project at the University of Minnesota. While such pigs aren’t viable, they can develop properly if a few cells are added from a normal pig embryo. Garry says he’s already melded two pigs in this way and recently won a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Army, which funds some biomedical research, to try to grow human hearts in swine. ...The worry is that the animals might turn out to be a little too human for comfort, say ending up with human reproductive cells, patches of people hair, or just higher intelligence. “We are not near the island of Dr. Moreau, but science moves fast,” NIH ethicist David Resnik said during the agency’s November meeting. “The specter of an intelligent mouse stuck in a laboratory somewhere screaming ‘I want to get out’ would be very troubling to people.”
The chance of an animal gaining human consciousness is probably slim; their brains are just too different, and much smaller. Even so, as a precaution, researchers working with farm-animal chimeras haven’t yet permitted any to be born, but instead are collecting fetuses in order to gather preliminary information about how great the contribution of human cells is to the animals’ bodies. ...
[S]cientists will have to prove that human cells can really multiply and contribute effectively to the bodies of farm animals. That could be challenging since, unlike rats and mice, which are fairly close genetically, humans and pigs last shared an ancestor nearly 90 million years ago.
To find out, researchers in 2014 decided to begin impregnating farm animals with human-animal embryos, says Pablo Ross, a veterinarian and developmental biologist at the University of California, Davis, where some of the animals are being housed. Ross says at Davis he has transferred about six sets of pig-human embryos into sows in collaboration with the Salk Institute and established another eight or 10 pregnancies of sheep-human embryos with Nakauchi. Another three dozen pig transfers have taken place outside the U.S., he says.
These early efforts aren’t yet to make organs, says Ross, but more “to determine the ideal conditions for generating human-animal chimeras. ... My view is that the contribution of human cells is going to be minimal, maybe 3 percent, maybe 5 percent. But what if they contributed to 100 percent of the brain? What if the embryo that develops is mostly human? It’s something that we don’t expect, but no one has done this experiment, so we can’t rule it out.”
Nevertheless, this is why this blog has repeatedly defended the education and financial support of professionals and practitioners from the so-called useless or unprofitable arts and humanities, to comment upon moral and philosophical aspects of the approaching Singularity. For my 2013 post on the human-animal genetic experiments, go here. See the NIH public enquiry from November 2015 below the jump.
Workshop on Animals Containing Human Cells: On 6 November 2015, researchers disclosed unpublished experimental findings at the request of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). Video Source: NIH.