A chimera is an animal/human hybrid (shades of the Island of Dr. Moreau) and the US government conducted a public consultation on the topic according to an Aug. 11, 2016 article by Dr. Andrew Maynard for slate.com (Note: Links have been removed),
On Aug. 4 , the NIH proposed two changes to the way the agency will oversee research using human stem cells in nonhuman primates. Policy changes like these are required to go out for public review and comment before being implemented, so we’re now entering a 30-day public comment period—everyone with opinions on research into combining humans with other animals has a chance to have his or her say.
That sounds inclusive and democratic, but usually only advocacy groups, concerned organizations, and policy wonks get involved. This isn’t surprising: The call for comments is posted in the rather esoteric Federal Register, a great publication for curing insomnia but not everyday reading for most people. Furthermore, issues like this are usually complex and require at least some background knowledge to understand.
But mashing up humans with pigs, sheep, and other animals is probably the sort of thing that ordinary citizens will want to have a say in. The challenge is, how do you help draw society’s ethical lines if you’ve only got 30 days to comment, and the issue is not straightforward?
The science at stake here involves “chimeras”—animals that are engineered to include both human and nonhuman cells and organs. This technology is increasingly possible with advances in stem cell research and gene editing. And it’s got a lot of scientists excited. Chimeras create brand-new research possibilities that might help us prevent devastating illnesses or understand the health impacts of chemical exposures. They also open the door to the possibility of growing replacement human organs in animals. Think about the possibilities of getting a new heart or lungs without someone having to die first.
Yet not everyone’s excited by the prospect of animals becoming partially “human.” Chimeras raise complex moral and ethical questions around creating part-human animals, questions that have less to do with the “could we?” of science and more to do with the broader “should we?”
Things become especially gnarly when faced with the possibility of chimeras developing part-human brains. Margaret Atwood explored this to great effect in in her MaddAddam trilogy, in which pigs designed to grow human organs (pigoons) developed humanlike intelligence. Atwood’s imagined future is speculative, but the science is catching up fast. And as it does, it may become harder to draw the line between humans and humanlike animals.
Scientists are already close to creating chimeras. Look at this description from my Aug. 11, 2016 posting on osteosarcomas,
… Researchers usually inject human or other tumor cells into their [mouse] bodies to mimic human cancers, Fan said. They also are bred to have compromised immune systems, to prevent them from rejecting the tumors.
Specifically there were two public consultations (from Andrew’s article; Note: A link has been removed),
… the agency has now put forward two proposals for public comment. One is an amendment to the 2009 guidelines that would extend slightly what researchers cannot do with nonhuman primates and breeding animals. The other proposal—and the more relevant of the two here—would establish an internal committee that reviews proposals for using human stem cells in nonhuman animals.
Here, NIH [US National Institutes of Health] is proposing to set up an internal committee that would decide which chimera research proposals get funded and which do not. According to the agency’s announcement, it’s looking for public input on the scope of the committee—essentially what types of research proposals would end up in front of it and how it would subsequently decide what is ethical and responsible (and therefore fundable) and what is not.
Initially, the plan is for the committee to focus on general research using human stem cells in nonhuman vertebrates (excluding primates) and on research where human cells may end up affecting an animal’s brain function. This second point gets to the core of concerns that somehow, by introducing human stem cells, hybrid animals could develop humanlike brain functions, possibly resulting in greater intelligence or more humanlike behavior. The problem is, once introduced to the embryo, it’s not always possible to tell where human stem cells will end up and what they’ll do.
This committee will be made up of NIH staff, presumably including experts in socially responsible research and innovation, as well as stem cell researchers and bioethicists. But beyond the 30-day comment period, it’s unclear how they’ll engage (or even whether they’ll engage) with ordinary people. Yet for ethical and responsible chimera research, ongoing public participation in the review process is essential. There are too many “should we?” questions that must not be left solely to scientists: What are the ethical boundaries around creating human-nonhuman chimera, for instance? Or how do we decide what are acceptable or unacceptable outcomes?
For this public participation to be meaningful, scientists and others need to do a better job explaining chimera research, what they are planning to do (and why), and what the benefits and consequences might be.
Andrew’s piece is primarily focused on the public consultation aspect of this research but it also offers an interesting and nuanced approach to some of the questions and issues raised by the research.
That was a bit unusual since the Americans make a point of being clear in their public consultation requests. Regardless, I hope Canadians follow suit at some point.
Finally, there was one comment to Andrew’s article which I feel deserves to be seen by as many people as possible,
don’t I have enough to worry about as the father os [sic] a two year old girl without you people raising the possibility that she might someday bring home a centaur to meet the family …
For anyone interested in minute detail, the US Federal Register notice was titled with what appeared to be two requests for public comment: Request for Public Comment on the Proposed Changes to the NIH Guidelines for Human Stem Cell Research and the Proposed Scope of an NIH Steering Committee’s Consideration of Certain Human-Animal Chimera Research but if you followed the link to the consultation you found this: NIH consideration of certain research proposals involving human-animal chimera models. It is unclear to me if they were expecting the public to comment about the guidelines for human stem cell research alone, as suggested by its title, or if the public was also being asked to comment on the scope of a proposed steering committee. I could not find a second consultation for the proposed steering committee.