Government regulation of research to enforce ethical concerns is a good idea, and I support the general idea. I’d like them to be based on reasonable concerns, though. I’m actually glad that the NIH has ended a ban on research into human-animal chimeras, although I know some people are going to freak out over it, pointlessly.
Here’s the basic idea. Mammalian embryos are relatively plastic. If you take a mouse embryo at the blastocyst stage, when the embryo is just a small number of cells in a spherical capsule, and you take a few cells from a human blastocyst and inject them into the mouse embryo, those human cells will be readily incorporated into the developing mouse. They can then be incorporated into the mouse’s tissues, so you end up with an adult mouse that has a liver made up of human liver cells. Or a human pancreas. Or, what really scares some people, human-derived brain tissue. Or human-derived gonadal tissue — the mouse could be making human sperm or human eggs, and if a boy mouse with human testes meets a girl mouse with human ovaries…well, you can imagine the concerns.
One issue is that scientists might inadvertently create animals that have partly human brains, endowing them with some semblance of human consciousness or human thinking abilities. Another is that they could develop into animals with human sperm and eggs and breed, producing human embryos or fetuses inside animals or hybrid creatures.
That was the thinking that led to the moratorium on such experiments, now lifted. Which is good.
All of those troubling possibilities are rather easily prevented, and also rather unlikely.
The concerns about animals with “some semblance of human consciousness or human thinking abilities” is simply silly. They already do, and you could also argue that humans have some semblance of animal consciousness. Mice aren’t going to be able to construct whole human brains in their tiny little skulls, although maybe a pig chimera could; but even there, our brains have co-evolved with all kinds of circulatory adaptations, and I rather suspect that a chimera with a significant amount of human brain tissue isn’t going to be viable. And most importantly, the point of such research isn’t to make a human brain in an experimental animal — it’s to get human nervous tissue that will have human-like responses to, for instance, pharmacological treatments.
It’s the same with the reproductive tissue. Making male and female pigs with human reproductive organs would be cool and useful, but bringing them together to do something as mundane as producing a human baby is not — and would be a catastrophic result of the research that would probably lead to the shutting down of the lab and massive legal consequences, all to produce a totally useless result. These are labs that are interested in studying the mechanisms of human sperm maturation, or oocyte development, not the mad scientist nonsense of creating ManBearPig.
Of course, some people don’t like the idea of ending the moratorium.
But critics denounced the decision. “Science fiction writers might have imagined worlds like this — like The Island of Dr. Moreau, Brave New World, Frankenstein,” says Stuart Newman, a biologist at New York Medical College. “There have been speculations. But now they’re becoming more real. And I think that we just can’t say that since it’s possible then let’s do it.”
Let’s do what? That’s the crux of this disagreement — no one is interested in creating The Island of Dr. Moreau in reality. Moreau was an idiot who didn’t do anything practical or informative with his imaginary technology, and using dystopian science fiction as your counter-argument really says you don’t understand the motivations behind this research.