It’s like they didn’t even watch Planet of the Apes. Or Deep Blue Sea. Or frankly any science fiction in the last 200 years. But perhaps it’s appropriate that, in the 200th anniversary year of the writing of Frankenstein, scientists should have finally gotten round to creating a hybrid life form using human and monkey DNA.
The team, led by Spanish scientist Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, has conducted an experiment every bit as terrifying as the headline – to create an embryo that is part monkey and part human.
Reported by Spain’s El Pais, this experiment, which is not Belmonte’s first foray into the territory of ethically unsettling chimera creation, was conducted by researchers from the USA and Spain and located in China, in order to ‘avoid legal issues.’
The man behind the hybrid is generally based at the prestigious Salk Institute in California, and his team is made up of members of both the Falk Institute and the Murcia Catholic University of Spain.
Belmonte already has a distinguished career making breakthroughs in biomedicine, mainly working with stem cells and genetic technologies. Time Magazine even named him one of the 50 most influential people working in healthcare in 2019. However, his latest experiment, although an unquestionable breakthrough, has raised some serious ethical red flags.
In the experiment, the genes of a monkey embryo were altered to deactivate the instruction for growing organs. Once this was done, human stem cells were injected into the developing embryo.
These are cells that are capable of developing into any form of tissue that can be found in the human body, depending on the instructions they receive.
The experiment was ended before the embryo had matured enough to be born, or even to develop a central nervous system, at just 14 days. But the potential seems likely for such a hybrid to be brought to term.
The research is intended to lead to the possibility of growing human or human-compatible organs in non-human animals, to allow for the possibility of harvesting these organs for much-needed transplantation.
Estrella Nunez, a member of the research team, told El Pais “What we want is to make progress for the sake of people who have a disease. The ultimate goal would be to create a human organ that could be transplanted.”
There is no doubt that the world needs more transplantable organs. By 2020 the UK government law on organ donation will change to an opt-out system, rather than an opt-in (assuming that people are willing to donate their organs after death unless they instruct otherwise) in order to encourage much-needed donations.
The shortage isn’t just in the UK, estimates in the US suggest that 33 people per day die waiting for an appropriate donor organ. Clearly, some answer needs to be found, and Belmonte seems to believe it lies down the hybridization route.
Belmonte has previously had success with creating equally terrifying sounding human-pig hybrids. In that earlier experiment, over 150 embryos were created, although issues around the short gestation period of pigs, at around 4 months, compared to human’s 9 months meant that the experiment was not considered viable and was discontinued.
Monkeys may prove a better match for the necessary gestation period for human organs, although one of Belmonte’s collaborators on the pig-human hybrid has suggested they are too small to be effective organ hosts.
However, the public won’t know for a while yet, since further details of Belmonte’s current research are being kept back until it is published in a well-known peer-reviewed journal.
So why the move to China for a Californian and Spanish joint project? The team behind the experiment spoke of ‘legal issues,’ but it is clear that there are ethical implications behind creating hybrid human beings, even just in embryo form.
In fact, many scientists have spoken out against such research, a group of leading scientists in March this year called for a moratorium on heritable genome editing.
But so far, China has shown itself to be much more relaxed about the ethics and legality of such experiments. Just last year He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen was responsible for editing the DNA of twin girls using the CRISPR-CAS 9 technique.
Since its recent discovery, CRISPR-CAS 9 has been well-used in a variety of biotechnology and medicine applications, but never before to permanently alter the human genome, until He Jiankui’s research.
However, given the global outcry, He subsequently lost his position and was prosecuted by the Chinese authorities, an investigation found he had “deliberately evaded oversight.”
But He isn’t the only scientist to have taken advantage of the lax policing of experimental ethics in China. On a more macabre note, Sergio Canavero, the Italian surgeon with the strange ambition to perform the world’s first head transplant, finally found a place to pursue his studies (if not human trials…yet) in China.
More macabre still, and very pertinent to the aims behind the efforts to create genetic human-animal hybrids is the discontinued practice of harvesting organs from executed prisoners, which Chinese officials finally confessed to in 2006, after denying the accusations for decades.
Although China may have ambitions to ethical standards in research and medicine closer to international norms, it has been argued that it is a long way off from achieving this in practice and, until then, it will remain a choice location for scientists looking to practice experiments that the rest of the world finds morally, if not legally, dubious.
Belmonte’s hybrids definitely seem to fall in the category of ‘dubious’ and, in spite of the tremendous social benefit that could come out of increased organ supply, more squeamish governments have been reticent to allow such research in the past.
For instance, in the US federal funding for research into creating these so-called ‘chimeras’ was banned until August 2016, meaning private funding was needed to keep Belmonte’s work at the Salk institute alive.
But despite Western governments holding their noses at the research they would prefer was conducted on the other side of the world, thousands of euros from Murcia Catholic University have also gone into the project (in spite of such research being restricted in Spain) as well as private dollars from the Salk Institute, to create the organ donor chimeras.
Any hybrid offspring of two or more genetically distinct creatures are known as chimeras (or ‘chimeric organisms’ if you want to sound technical). They are named after the ancient Greek mythic beast which was a three-headed amalgam of lion, goat, and snake and which also breathed fire, just to top things off.
Curiously, as far back as the early 1990s Britain’s ITV produced a television drama all about an attempt to create human-ape hybrids for organ extraction and called it, what else but Chimera? It didn’t end well.
Either scientists really, really haven’t been studying the warnings of science fiction, or they’ve been using them as perverse encouragement.
Since headlines across the world’s press have been describing this as the world’s ‘first’ human-monkey hybrid, it seems unlikely that it will be the last, unless international regulation becomes much stronger and more effective in the near future.
The worry is that such experiments instead create a scientific arms race, leading to an escalation in genetic research without due regard for ethics.
Already scientists in Japan have received the go-ahead to create a similar human hybrid, using rodents, and researchers in South Korea controversially cloned human embryos (leading to requests by British scientists, led by Kathy Niakan, to the British medical authorities to be given permission to do the same).
The concerns that human DNA may accidentally lead to animals with human levels of intelligence have been outright dismissed, Estrella Nunez pointing out that a mechanism has been created “so that if human cells migrate to the brain, they will self-destruct.”
Nonetheless, a number of dilemmas remain, not least the morality of farming animals that are at least in part human, for their organs. But, then again, perhaps it’s worth remembering where meat comes from…
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