Human/Animal Hybrids?

Pallas and the Centaur, by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1482

A Facebook friend posted this article on my timeline, and then a reader of this blog sent me an email that included the same article plus this one. Both articles report on experiments that will attempt to produce human/animal hybrids. This idea obviously makes a lot of people uneasy, so I thought I would explore it a bit here.

First, let’s make sure we know exactly what these experiments are trying to accomplish. They are not trying to make some human/animal hybrid like the centaur pictured on the left. Instead, they want to take animal embryos and edit out key genes necessary for the animal to grow a specific organ. They then want to inject pluripotent human stem cells into the embryo. Since pluripotent stem cells have the ability to become any kind of cell, the thought is that the human pluripotent stem cells would grow the organ that the animal embryo cannot grow, resulting in an animal embryo that is growing a human organ. So this is less of a human/animal hybrid and more of an animal/human chimera.

Why would anyone want to do this? Well, it is estimated that more than 7,000 people die every year because they need a transplant but cannot get the necessary organ. This process would greatly increase the pool of organs available for transplant, thus saving many people’s lives.

Now to put this in perspective, we already know that there are human/human chimeras which occur naturally. We know that when a woman is pregnant, some of the baby’s cells get inside the mother and can stay long after the child is born. In addition, the mother’s cells get into the baby and can stay there for a long time as well. There is also evidence that a baby can contribute stem cells to his or her mother in an attempt to aid the mother when she has heart troubles. Thus, for at least a long while, pregnant women and babies are chimeras, each harboring some of the other’s cells.

Of course, animal/human chimeras are quite different, since they mix species. Is it ethical to attempt to make them? Well, first we have to worry about the source of the human stem cells. Political propaganda that is pretty much devoid of scientific reasoning would have you believe that the only really pluripotent stem cells are the ones harvested from embryos. That process murders the embryo, so clearly, the acquisition of such stem cells is utterly immoral. Fortunately, science tells us that adult stem cells, which can be removed from the body without murder, are pluripotent and very effective. Science also tells us that normal cells can be induced into becoming pluripotent stem cells. So if the human stem cells are adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells, at least no murder is involved.

But what about producing an animal embryo that has a human organ in it? Even if the human stem cells used are ethical, is the product ethical? I honestly don’t know. Obviously, the animal embryo will die, because once the organ is harvested, the animal won’t be able to survive. However, we kill animals all the time to allow us to have better lives, so I don’t see that as a problem. However, the idea of having a human organ in an animal is, at least, unsettling.

Once again, however, to put things into perspective, this isn’t new research. Indeed, the scientist who plans on making monkey/human chimeras has already tried to do it with pigs and induced pluripotent stem cells, and it didn’t go well. While a few of the human cells survived, they didn’t contribute to the pig embryo in any meaningful way. The scientist thinks that monkeys might work better, since they are more genetically similar to humans.

I am interested to hear what my readers think. As mathematician Ian Malcom says in the only good Jurassic Park movie:

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Do you think that scientists should? Why or why not?

6 Comments

  1. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

    Well, I wouldn’t have a problem with organs being grown in some kind of organ-growing-tank(?)

    Honestly, I don’t think I have a problem with human organs being grown in animals, if:

    1. it actually works. Even if an animal can successfully grow “human” organs (and that’s a pretty big “if”), I could imagine that there could be unforseen complications once the organs are used as transplants for humans.

    2. They don’t take it any further. I could very easily see some scientist(s) using the excuse of using animals to grow human organs to take advantage of the opportunity to create/produce an actual human/animal hybrid. While currently, they are just making chimeras, the articles made it sound like they might play around with making fully developed hybrids in the future.

    “While Nakauchi and his team are trying to target this treatment to just the pancreas, if they detect more than 30 percent of the rodent brains are human, they will suspend the experiment.”

    Who’s to stop them from suspending the experiments if someone decides to let it go over 30%?

    So, ultimately, I think it’s a bad idea, because, even if it does work, the results would still be fraught with risk, and because I don’t trust every scientist forever to stay within the boundaries set.

    I’ll bet the problem of shortage of organs could be solved by just more people being willing to donate, either the ones they can live without, or donate after you die (you won’t need them then anyway!).

  2. Shell says:

    No I don’t think they should. The bible is clear that YWHY made each kind to produce after it’s own kind…not one kind to a different kind.
    It seams to me that this is part of the struggle of humans trying to become immortal in their own strength … or as close to it as human kind can…without the Grace of YHWY.

    1. Rita says:

      Question: Are animals and/or human cells, embryos used at any point in the making of any vaccines we use?

      1. Jay Wile says:

        Animal cells are used for some vaccines. There are four vaccines (hepatitis A , the rubella portion of the MMR, chicken pox, and shingles) that use human cells which are part of self-perpetuating populations that came from two abortions: one in 1962 and the other in 1966. Here are my thoughts on those.

  3. Jake says:

    I would probably say that, for this, we need multiple schools of Christian bioethics. All I can do is say that, well, these things seem to be just animals with human cells, so I guess they aren’t human. But I do physics, not biology or moral philosophy. I’d be skeptical of Catholic bioethics, and I would trust Evangelical bioethics even less. It’s yet another reason we need fewer scientists and more people in the humanities.

  4. John D says:

    Unsure where the “take dominion” edict ends and the “be good stewards” edict begins. Lots of grey area in the “what we can do vs what we should” do discussion. I personally dislike too much toying with God’s design and was really upset when I read that the Catholic Church allows for GMO wheat to be used in communion hosts. At the same time I highly respect dna engineering scientist John Sanford who has said that GMO crops could solve world hunger. I remember reading an old article in which Nikola Tesla mentioned he was experimenting with resonance devices. He said he was able to shake an entire building with a small device simply by finding a frequency and feeding it into the building. (If you’ve ever placed a turntable on top of a speaker and heard a feedback loop then it seems possible) He mentioned that with the right parameters you could make a device that could crack the earth in half like an apple. This is a man experimenting in his own quarters with no government oversight (not disimilar to many scientists today) Personally I think Tesla lost sight of Gods omnipotence. However it is a reminder that much of what happens is out of our control. In all these matters it’s important to remember that God is sovereign.

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