Ethics surrounding creating chimera inside monkeys

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Stem cell research

Is Planet of the Apes going to become a reality?. Scientists have created early embryos that are part human and part macaque monkey. They did this in order to better understand how human cells and animal cells communicate with each other. The long-term goal is to find ways to grow human organs in animals because the demand for human organs in transplant operations is greater than the supply.

Stem cell research

Creating chimera – human/monkey embryos for what purpose? Image: Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay .

So, it seems to me, that if scientists can grow human organs inside animals such as macaque monkeys they will then have to remove that organ from the animal at some stage in the future and kill the animal. That is an ethical aspect of this research which the scientists have not addressed. In fact, it is one of many ethical aspects which are called into question by this research.

There are fears that it may lead to hybrid animals, half monkey and half human. Or it may lead to human embryos being inside female monkeys. It is a Planet of the Apes scenario to which you have to add a nuclear war and the film becomes a reality.

The research was carried out by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, and associates, a professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, Calif. It is published in the journal Cell. Some scientists believe that before this sort of research is conducted there needs to be a discussion about the ethical implications. How far do we go and where does it leed to?

Being an animal advocate, I am more interested in the research from an animal rights perspective. The scientists are more concerned about the ethics from a human perspective. They will argue that the research will benefit humans and that the ethical issues can be managed. I would argue that the whole process is based upon an abuse of animals. That alone should make it ethically unacceptable.

There must be a question too about the necessity of organ transplantation in humans. Often times it is to prolong the lifespan of a person who is already in middle age. Is it right to use animals to achieve this? Is it better to let the person die natural? Do we have to constantly try to extend the lifespan of humans; to achieve the holy Grail of medicine, a longer life? Do we need to live longer lives? Physically we might be able to ensure that we live longer but mentally we might not want to live longer.

There is no point in building human bodies which can live longer if the brain cannot tolerate it. There is a natural lifespan and I believe that the brain is programmed to accept this and if we step beyond those years it is uncomfortable for the brain, for the mentality of the individual.

One scientist, Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University and Harvard University said: “It’s aimed at lofty humanitarian goals”. Note the focus on humans in that statement. It is a human-centric statement. It takes no account of animal rights and animal welfare. I don’t think that we can behave ethically if our arguments are human-centred and don’t take into account the rights of animals.

In the research, they injected human stem cells into 132 macaque monkey embryos. The cells of macaque monkeys are much more closely genetically related to humans than those of sheep and pigs. In the past they have used sheep and pigs for this sort of research.

Three of the chemeric embryos survived beyond day 19. But there are big barriers to making the technique work reliably. And Anna Smajdor, associate Professor of practical philosophy at the University of Oslo said that their existence posed a conundrum.

She said: “This breakthrough reinforces an increasingly inescapable fact: biological categories are not fixed-they are fluid. This poses significant ethical and legal challenges.”

I’m not sure what she means by biological categories not being fixed. I believe she means that we can create hybrid species, creatures that some would call monsters, by using the techniques mentioned above. Nature wouldn’t have intended this. It is an entirely artificial human-generated process.

I fear that this sort of process is not that dissimilar to the relationship between humans and animals that caused the coronavirus pandemic: an unhealthy relationship. Humans do not know what will come out of these sorts of experiments but I fear that it will be bad. Nature doesn’t like it. Unfortunately humans like to think that they can improve on natural selection in their arrogance. They may be brought up sharp in the distant future in the same way that the pandemic reminded us that we cannot abuse nature without consequences.

A genetic chimerism or chimera is a single organism composed of cells with more than one distinct genotype

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