The United States Health Agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced that it is waiting for funding from the country’s government, to conduct a study that will mix human cells into the embryos of animals.
The study, which many critics have warned of its ethical consequences, will try to combine human beings and animals to become a new mix. Such proposals have met still public opposition, in Western countries, in the past. Activists against human-animal hybrids believe it will lead to a complete destruction of the Earth’s species.
However, according to the NIH, the study could lead to major breakthroughs to tackle diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The agency also believes the controversial study could also be used to grow organs needed for human transplants, solving the acute shortage of body parts for transplant in patients who need them.
In 2009, the NIH issued Guidelines for Human Stem Cell Research. The Guidelines prohibited the use of human cells in the fusion of animals, as well as breeding of animals using human eggs or sperm cells. This was lauded by activists against human-animal hybrids.
In 2015, the agency again issued a moratorium on research on the use of human cells into the brains of animals. However, the NIH says it has changed its mind, and now wants to venture into a field it proscribed in the past. Critics worry that it will raise serious ethical issues.
According to critics of the study, the proposed study by the NIH is likely to raise complex ethical issues, especially considering what is deemed acceptable in today’s society. Critics believe it is highly unethical to alter the brain of an animal with human cells, considering the fact that animals cannot talk for humans to know their decision.
A New York Medical College researcher Stuart Newman says if the study is given the backing by the government, it will expose animals to suffering, which the researchers may not be aware. He adds that the study is an area the NIH should not be allowed to investigate.
“Let’s say that we have pigs with human brains and they are wondering why we are doing experiments on them. What if we had human bodies with animal brains, and then you say, ‘Well they are not really humans, we can do experiments on them and harvest organs from them. I am coming up with extreme scenarios, but just making these chimeric embryos 15 or 20 years ago was considered an extreme scenario. It is just a road that we should not go down. We don’t have any laws in this country that would stop doing those things,” Newman says.
But officials at the NIH are adamant of what critics of the planned study are saying. The NIH’s Associate Director for Science Policy, Carrie Wolinetz writes in a statement on the agency’s website, that the decision to now embark on something they prohibited in the past, will help researchers at the NIH. “I am confident that these proposed changes will enable the NIH research community to move this promising area of science forward in a responsible manner,” she says.
Carrie also reveals that human cells to animals, are not new. She claims it has been used many times in the biomedical industry.
“Researchers have created and used animal models containing human cells for decades to gain valuable insights into human biology and disease development. For example, human tumor cells are routinely grown in mice to study cancer disease processes and to evaluate potential treatment strategies,” she writes in the statement.
But critics again say what the NIH wants to do, is different from what the biochemical industry does. It is said the proposal of the NIH would involve human stem cells being injected into an animal embryo at a very early stage, which could theoretically mean that the human cells would contribute to the development on the animal. The animal will then become something like half human being, half animal. According to critics, this is why they are strongly against the study.
Some people on the other hand, have advocated for the study. The Director of Columbia University’s Masters of bioethics program, Robert Klitzman says the decision by the NIH to finally fuse humans and animals cells together, could help find lasting cure to the diseases of millions of people around the world. However, he cautions that there should be a strong and independent oversight committee on the study, so that the prevention of abuses by the researchers can occur.
“If we want to do research on schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s and depression, we can’t readily do research on brain cells of humans with these diseases because we can’t open up the brains of people while they are alive. We need to be careful with human brain cells. What we don’t want is a mouse or a chimp that suddenly has human-like qualities, because morally that creates a number of problems,” Klitzman says.
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