United States Research Farms have decided to continue their efforts to grow live human organs inside animals like pigs and sheep. The process has been under fire regarding the issue’s ethics and concerns stemming from crossing animal DNA with human organs. The human-animal Chimeras are stirring ethical and health debates in many venues regarding the studies. The term Chimera was coined after years of experiments have taken place, as explained in the 2013 article on the Slate website by Daniel Engber.
The recent MIT Technology Review article details efforts to grow organs like hearts, livers, and lungs. According to the article at least 20 pig pregnancies containing human DNA have been confirmed. Although the pregnancies took place, no experimental publications have been published and none of the pregnancies have made it to full term.
Last September, in a reversal of earlier policy, the National Institutes of Health announced it would not support studies involving such “human-animal chimeras” until it had reviewed the scientific and social implications more closely. At that point the NIH stopped all funding to the project.
In a statement recently released the NIH also explained the ethical issues of blurring the lines between species and expressed concerns about the chance that animals’ “cognitive state” could be altered if they ended up with human brain cells.
The human cells are being added to the animal embryos in the very beginning stages of growth. Without published reports and the ongoing experiments taking place, the only information on the controversial tests is the presentation made to NIH’s Maryland campus at the request of the agency. The findings were presented by Daniel Garry, who leads the chimera project at the University of Maryland:
We can make an animal without a heart. We have engineered pigs that lack skeletal muscles and blood vessels. While such pigs aren’t viable, they can develop properly if a few cells are added from a normal pig embryo. With already melded two pigs in this way and recently won a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Army, which funds some biomedical research, to try to grow human hearts in swine.
While some believe that the Chimeras could help the harvesting of human organs for transplants and the possibility of producing stem cells for research could save countless lives, others have begun the process of dismantling the experiments. NIH ethicist David Resnik made statements regarding the issue during the agency’s meeting last November:
The worry is that the animals might turn out to be a little too human for comfort, say ending up with human reproductive cells, patches of people hair, or just higher intelligence. We are not near the island of Dr. Moreau, but science moves fast. The specter of an intelligent mouse stuck in a laboratory somewhere screaming ‘I want to get out’ would be very troubling to people.
None of the experiments have been brought to full term at this point and researchers are only using the fetuses involved in the experiment for further testing no one knows what will happen next. The issue is clearly one that will bring ethical and moral debates and the ongoing experiments will need continued monitoring but at this point no clear laws regarding Chimeras have been implemented.