In what may seem more like a Hollywood science-fiction plot, as in the forthcoming movie “Splice,” lawmakers are trying to prevent scientists from combining human and animal embryos to make “human-animal hybrids.”
In “Splice,” two scientists defy ethical boundaries and splice together human and animal DNA to create a new organism, also known as a chimera.
Sarah Polley and Delphine Chaneac in “Splice”
At what price?
While the idea of such an experiment may seem far-fetched, scientists around the world have been dabbling in creation of human-animal hybrids for years.
Today, Ohio’s Senate Health, Human Services and Aging Committee passed S.B.
243 – a ban on human-animal hybrids.
The bill prohibits “human cloning, the creation, transportation, or receipt of a human-animal hybrid, the transfer of a nonhuman embryo into a human womb, and the transfer of a human embryo into a nonhuman womb.”
Mark Harrington, executive director of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform Midwest and president of the Pro-life Institute, presented expert testimony.
“We all want to see treatments for sickness,” he said. “We all want to see cures for disease. But the question is at what price?”
He added, “I am becoming more and more convinced when it comes to emerging bio technologies like human-animal hybrids that many of these researchers do not believe in any limits on research as long as it has the possibility to produce an economic end that suits their agenda.”
The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform is urging citizens to call Ohio State senators and ask them to support S.B. 243 with a vote on the Senate floor.
Human-animal hybrid experimentation
Scientists have had some success with human-animal hybrid experiments. In 2003, Chinese scientists at the Shanghai Second Medical University fused human cells with rabbit embryos, according to National Geographic News. The embryos were given several days to develop before the scientists destroyed them to harvest stem cells.
According to the report, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota were able to create pigs with human blood flowing through their bodies in 2004.
“Scientists feel that, the more humanlike the animal, the better research model it makes for testing drugs or possibly growing ‘spare parts,’ such as livers, to transplant into humans,” National Geographic reported. “Watching how human cells mature and interact in a living creature may also lead to the discoveries of new medical treatments.”
Biotechnology activist Jeremy Rifkin told the magazine, “One doesn’t have to be religious or into animal rights to think this doesn’t make sense. It’s the scientists who want to do this. They’ve now gone over the edge into the pathological domain.”
In 2005, New York scientist Stuart Newman sought a patent on a process to combine human embryo cells with cells from the embryo of a monkey, ape or other animal. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected his request, according to the Washington Post, because the hybrid “would be too closely related to a human to be patentable.”
However, the decision was a victory for Newman, who reportedly had no intention of creating the hybrids. He simply sought a legal precedent to stop others from obtaining patents on living things.
The Post reported Stanford University biologist Irving Weissman helped other scientists make hybrid rodents, including mice that have up to 1 percent human brain cells in their skulls.
Also, a researcher at the University of Nevada at Reno, Esmail Zanjani, successfully grew mostly human livers in sheep. His goal was to make the humanized livers available for transplant in people.
In 2008, British scientists produced human-animal hybrid embryos by inserting human DNA from a skin cell into a hollowed-out cow embryo.
“An electric shock then induced the hybrid embryo to grow,” London’s Guardian reported. “The embryo, 99.9 percent human and 0.1 percent other animal, grew for three days, until it had 32 cells.”
Likewise, Eugene Redmond, professor of psychiatry and neurosurgery at Yale University School of Medicine, worked on adding human nerve cells into monkeys as part of the search for a cure for Parkinson’s disease.
“We find that we can get stem cells to survive for long periods of time in the brain,” Redmond told PBS in a 2005 interview. “They make into different types of cells, and we have some preliminary results in functionally impaired animals that the stem cells improve their Parkinsonism and make them better.”
He added, “What we’re doing, however, is something that’s been done for years and there was not a lot of interest in it.”
Legal or illegal?
The Arizona state Senate passed a bill just last month making it illegal for a person to “intentionally or knowingly creating a human-animal hybrid.” Louisiana passed a similar law in 2009. Currently, there is no U.S. law banning human-animal hybrid research.
In 2006, then-President George W. Bush used his State of the Union address to urge Congress to pass legislation prohibiting “egregious abuses of medical research,” including “creating human-animal hybrids.”
The National Academy of Sciences, which advises the U.S. government, has issued its own guidelines on chimeras. A summary of those guidelines states:
The Academies’ guidelines also address how far scientists should go in mixing human and animal cells to create so-called chimeras, which researchers may need to do in order to test the therapeutic potential of human stem cells in animal models. …
[N]o animal embryonic stem cells should be transplanted into a human blastocyst, and approval by an ESCRO [Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight] committee should be secured before any human embryonic stem cells are put into an animal. Also, no animal into which human embryonic stem cells have been introduced should be allowed to breed. In addition, no human embryonic stem cells should be put into nonhuman primate blastocysts.”
Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., introduced
S. 1435, the Human-Animal
Hybrid Prohibition Act of 2009 in the U.S. Senate last year. The bill stated:
It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly, in or otherwise affecting interstate commerce –
1) create or attempt to create a human-animal hybrid;
2) transfer or attempt to transfer a human embryo into a non-human womb;
3) transfer or attempt to transfer a non-human embryo into a human womb; or
4) transport or receive for any purpose a human-animal hybrid.
Penalties included up to
10 years imprisonment and civil fines of at least $1 million. The legislation had 20 co-sponsors, but it died in committee.
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