Of Mice and Men (and Other Chimeras)

General Bioethics — By on September 11, 2007 at 12:45 am

For those concerned about threats to human dignity, news from the bioethical frontier is almost always depressing and reminiscent of bizarre speculative fiction. For example, events in the UK last week have reminded me of an obscure novel by the French writer Vercors. You Shall Know Them begins just after Douglas Templemore injects his infant son with strychnine chlorhydrate. Although anguished by the killing, the father had planned the act even before the child had been sired. It was his attempt to save the mother, a female of the species Paranthropus erectus that had been discovered off the coast of New Zealand.
Because of their almost-human qualities, industrialists planned to use the creatures as “beast of burden” in Australian factories. Outraged by this forced slavery, Templemore, a British journalist, devised a plan to test the legal status of the species. Using artificial insemination, he impregnated one of the captured females with his own seed. While the mother remained jailed in a London zoo, Templemore took his offspring home and put him to death. Afterwards, he called the police to arrest him:

The inspector drew nearer. His pale eyelashes were fluttering like moths.
“Mr. Templemore, what exactly do you expect us to do?”
“Your job, Inspector.”
“But what job, sir? This little creature is a monkey, that’s plain. Why the dickens do you want to . . .”
“That’s my business, Inspector.”
“Well, ours is certainly not to meddle . . .”
“I have killed my child, Inspector.”
“I’ve grasped that. But this . . . this creature isn’t a . . . it doesn’t present . . .”
“He’s been christened, Inspector, and his birth duly entered at the registry office under the name of Garry Ralph Templemore.”
Fine beads of perspiration broke out on the inspector’s face. He suddenly shot a question at Douglas.
“Under what name was the mother entered?”
“Under her own, Inspector: ‘Native woman from New Guinea, known as Derry.’”
“False declaration!” cried the inspector triumphantly. “The whole registration is invalid.”
“False declaration?”
“The mother isn’t a woman.”
“That remains to be proved.”
“Why, you yourself –”
“Opinions are divided.”
“Divided? Divided about what? Whose opinions?”
“Those of the leading anthropologists, about the species the Paranthropus belongs to. It’s an intermediate species: man or ape? It resembles both. It may well be that Derry is a woman after all. It’s up to you to prove the contrary, if you can. In the meantime her child is my son, before God and the law.”

The remainder of the novel focuses on the series of trials set to determine whether Templemore is guilty of murder–or merely animal cruelty. But what was merely a hypothetical question of science fiction in 1953 has become a genuine bioethical conundrum in 2007. For the past several years scientists have been blurring the line between human and animal by producing chimeras–a hybrid creature that’s part human, part animal.


The Chinese began in 2003 by fusing human cells with rabbit eggs to produce the first human-animal chimeras. Earlier this year, a professor at the University of Nevada went even further by creating the world’s first human-sheep chimera – which has the body of a sheep and half-human organs. And just last week in the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) cleared the way for further research.
Initially, the public opposed this bioethics travesty:

Initial investigations of public opinion showed resistance to the idea of combining human and animal DNA. Ethical concerns with this type of research were the main reason for the publics’ initial apprehension. But once they realized the research could lead to therapies for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, opinion changed.

It’s hard to determine who more at fault — the scientists who lie about the potential for “therapies” or the ignorant public that is willing to set aside ethical qualms in order to accept such nonsense. (And lest I’m too vague let me clarify what I’m saying: Any scientist that claims that chimeric research will eventually lead to cures for Alzheimer’s is either an idiot or a liar.*)
The underlying ethical assumption is that humans–at least at the embryonic stage of development–are nothing more than genetic material that can be mixed with other species in whatever way that scientists deem appropriate for their “research.”
Even worse, the few remaining biomedical scientists with even a sliver of ethical credibility (the bar is set low in this field) are hopelessly naïve. For example, David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, does believe that we should worry about chimeras being put to uses that are problematic, risky, or dangerous.
An example of an experiment that would raise concerns, he says, is genetically engineering mice to produce human sperm and eggs, then doing in vitro fertilization to produce a child whose parents are a pair of mice.
“Most people would find that problematic,” Magnus said, “but those uses are bizarre and not, to the best of my knowledge, anything that anybody is remotely contemplating. Most uses of chimeras are actually much more relevant to practical concerns.”
Practical concerns. In Vercors; novel the “practical concerns” are industrial; in America, our practical concerns center on our nation’s shared religion: technology. And when the religion’s most powerful denomination–biotechnology–shows an interest, minor quibbles about dignity and human value are easily set aside. Ironically, we consider ourselves too civilized to create chimerical slaves for the factory, yet show no concern for chattel produced for the laboratory.
“What is man that thou art mindful of him,” the Psalmist asks. “Opinions are divided,” reply the technologists, “opinions are divided.”
*UPDATE — In the comment thread, a reader wrote:

…I think if you’re going to make assertions as to the falsehood of scientific claims, you need to provide some fairly rigorous evidence. Otherwise your readers remain uninformed, and ill-equipped for arguing their case. Would love to hear more on the subject!

Fair enough. I may have assumed too much by expecting people to infer the reasons chimeric research is being pursued. Here are a few points that need to be made to clarify my assertion that chimeric research will never lead to cures for Alzheimer’s.
Because there are not enough embryos from IVF, human cloning is needed to create the stem cell lines needed for research. But there are not enough human egg donations to make this feasible, which is one of the primary reasons why scientist turn to the animal kingdom (i.e., rabbit eggs).
We’ll set aside the question of whether chimeras are useful for anything and assume concede the best case scenario, which is that chimeric research would advance the study of ESCR. Even if this were to occur, it would likely have little effect on cures for Alzheimer’s. ESCR is unlikely to have any significant impact on Alzheimer’s, much less lead to cures for that disease. This myth was squashed several years ago but because it keeps popping up, let’s go over it once more:
From the WaPo article Stem Cells An Unlikely Therapy for Alzheimer’s (June 10, 2004):

[T]he infrequently voiced reality, stem cell experts confess, is that, of all the diseases that may someday be cured by embryonic stem cell treatments, Alzheimer’s is among the least likely to benefit.
“I think the chance of doing repairs to Alzheimer’s brains by putting in stem cells is small,” said stem cell researcher Michael Shelanski, co-director of the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, echoing many other experts. “I personally think we’re going to get other therapies for Alzheimer’s a lot sooner.”…
But given the lack of any serious suggestion that stem cells themselves have practical potential to treat Alzheimer’s, the Reagan-inspired tidal wave of enthusiasm stands as an example of how easily a modest line of scientific inquiry can grow in the public mind to mythological proportions.
It is a distortion that some admit is not being aggressively corrected by scientists.
“To start with, people need a fairy tale,” said Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.” [emphasis added]

And from Wired magazine, Alzheimer’s: Beyond Stem Cells (June 11, 2004)

“I just think everybody feels there are higher priorities for seeking effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and for identifying preventive strategies,” said Marilyn Albert, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who chairs the Medical and Scientific Advisory Council of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Stem cells from human embryos can form all types of cells, and the hope is that they one day could be used to replace cells damaged from such conditions as diabetes, spinal cord injury or Parkinson’s disease. But experts say Alzheimer’s, by the very nature of how it attacks the brain, would pose a far more daunting challenge to that approach.

Nothing has changed in the past three years, expect for the willingness of some researchers to lie in order to get the funding they want. Oddly enough, the same people who get upset when corporations distort the truth in order to win government contracts don’t blink when scientists make false claims in order to get government grants.
Either these researchers do not understand the science (and are thus to ill-informed to know what is going on) or they know the truth and believe that lying to the public is necessary to get what they want.
For all the bluster, I have yet to hear a single researcher explain how chimeras will lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s. Anytime you hear this claim, ask them how this will happen. You’ll likely be met with silence. The most they will do is fall back on their “faith-based” rationales, that the research might someday, somehow, despite everything we know, bring about a miraculous advance. So let me revise my point: Any scientist that claims that chimeric research will eventually lead to cures for Alzheimer’s is an idiot, a liar, or a priest in the church of Scientism.



  • Alan McCann

    Great post, Joe.
    What horrified me when I read the article about the testing was that the sole measure of determining whether such “chimerical” experimentation would be allowed was public opinion. Ethics by popular vote – wonderful.

  • http://onefortruth.blogspot.com Zeke

    I agree with everything you said, but you could use some evidence for this assertion:
    It’s hard to determine who more at fault — the scientists who lie about the potential for “therapies” or the ignorant public that is willing to set aside ethical qualms in order to accept such nonsense. (And lest I’m too vague let me clarify what I’m saying: Any scientist that claims that chimeric research will eventually lead to cures for Alzheimer’s is either an idiot or a liar.)
    I’m not willing to set aside ethical qualms, but in my 5 or 10 minute search I couldn’t corroborate that potential genetic therapies are just a pack of lies. C’mon, blogger… linkify me on this one. The link you provided to National Geographic didn’t bolster your claim at all, except around the ethical challenges.

  • I’m with Zeke…

    Interesting post. I’m still undecided on this matter, but found many of your arguments persuasive. However, I think if you’re going to make assertions as to the falsehood of scientific claims, you need to provide some fairly rigorous evidence. Otherwise your readers remain uninformed, and ill-equipped for arguing their case.
    Would love to hear more on the subject!

  • Rob Ryan

    “Any scientist that claims that chimeric research will eventually lead to cures for Alzheimer’s is either an idiot or a liar.”
    Because Joe said so.

  • http://evangelicalperspective.blogspot.com Collin Brendemuehl

    “Any scientist that claims that chimeric research will eventually lead to cures for Alzheimer’s is either an idiot or a liar.”
    No. It may. But at one cost. There are other terms more suitable than “idiot” or “liar”. “Scoundrel” comes to mind.
    Collin
    http://evangelicalperspective.blogspot.com

  • Nick

    Relevant fictional treatments of this issue would also include Heinlein’s “Jerry was a Man.”
    An example of an experiment that would raise concerns, he says, is genetically engineering mice to produce human sperm and eggs, then doing in vitro fertilization to produce a child whose parents are a pair of mice.
    Another one I’ve seen suggested recently is putting a human nucleus into an enucleated mouse egg in order to produce stem cells without the intermediate step of a human embryo. It reminded me of the previous suggestion (which you supported, as I recall) to generate stem cells from embryos that have been deliberately engineered to fail in early development.
    IMO, the main ethical and moral problems with these suggestions occur if the resulting organisms are treated as less than human. IMO, any organism the two scenarios above would be fully human and entitled to to human rights and protections. What do you think?

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Earlier this year, a professor at the University of Nevada went even further by creating the world’s first human-sheep chimera – which has the body of a sheep and half-human organs
    …It’s hard to determine who more at fault — the scientists who lie about the potential for “therapies” or the ignorant public that is willing to set aside ethical qualms in order to accept such nonsense.
    Well I’m not sure I see the lie here. The sheep chimera certainly sounds like it has the potential for useful therapies if it doesn’t already.
    (And lest I’m too vague let me clarify what I’m saying: Any scientist that claims that chimeric research will eventually lead to cures for Alzheimer’s is either an idiot or a liar.)
    And any half-scientifically literate psuedo-pundit who says such research cannot lead to a cure or therapy for Alzheimer’s is likewise.
    Let’s clear up this right now. Joe and everyone else on this list lacks the expertise to evaluate any potential claims for therapy from research. Even when you have a team of very highly educated scientists there is still no way to evaluate the potential fruits of a particular research project. If you think otherwise please send me your resume. I happen to work for a pharmaceutical company and I’m sure they and others would pay hundreds of millions if not billions for a sure-fire way of knowing ahead of time what will work and what won’t.
    As far as evaluating potential goes here are the facts. Research is expensive and research dollars are scarce. Those seeking research dollars must compete against everyone else who has their own ideas and those allocating research dollars, whether in a private company, a foundation or a gov’t agency like the NIH, have powerful incentive to fund things that will pay off. Since all of this is beyond the knowledge of everyone here we should really just SHUT UP about whether something can or cannot work and concentrate our pratter on the philosophical/ethical issues.
    So let’s leave aside the question of whether R&D will pay off with cures or therapies or even industrial applications. It’s really none of our business unless someone here happens to be running a mutual fund investing in bio-tech firms or running a research budget. In that case get back to work and stop goofing off on the Internet! Let’s also take off the tabe, just for this thread, cases where human embryos are destroyed or modified. We cover that topic over and over again whenever abortion comes up or stem cell research etc.
    Let’s deal with just the issue of chimeras. Joe just spent two posts attacking reductionism and has numerous times attacked the idea that a human beign could be ‘reduced’ to ‘just matter and energy’. If that is the case then what’s his beef here? The sheep that has some human DNA to make a few organs that could be transplanted into human beigns is no more a human beign than the cow that you eat who eventually turns into the organs inside your body is a human beign. If the ‘magical moment’ happens when human sperm and egg unite then the ‘human-sheep’ is no such thing. It is just a specialized type of sheep no different than a sheep that’s been breed to produce a certain type of wool. Joe should be thankful because if such a sheep could provide us with organs then there would be fewer people on transplant lists hoping that some other human will die in a car accident or other misshap. Probably even more important to Joe, though, would be less incentive for anyone to try to get organs thru human cloning. That seems all the good for human dignity. Certainly hoping other humans suffer an early death or manufacturing embryos for organ harvesting isn’t all that great for human dignity. If the sheep could stop that then what’s the problem?
    Now if you’re a reductionist, on the other hand, who believes humans can be reduced to ‘matter and energy’ there are real points of danger here. A true half-human sheep would have some type of human consciousness. It seems wrong to create that for organ harvesting just as it seems wrong to create humans to be used as food. It also seems wrong to create it just for the sake of doing it since we don’t know if such a creature would suffer more in its life than a 100% sheep or 100% human wouold. On the other hand, the ethical issues seems to be resolved if we limit ourselves from creating chimeras that are ‘essentially like a human’. So a sheep that happened to have a human heart or human kidneys wouldn’t be so bad. A chimp-human hybred that combined the instinctual areas of a chimps brain with the language areas of a human would.
    But none of this complication should be a problem for Joe since he is not a reductionist. Unless a creature is made by combining human sperm and human egg it isn’t human and is no different than any other animal that we create and use for our survival. Joe would have to consider Templemore nothing more than an animal abuser and his claims of killing his son would be just as fanciful as pet owners who claim their little dogs or cats are their ‘babies’.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    What exactly would be the point of genetically engineering a mouse to produce human sperm and eggs? It’s not like we’re running out of the stuff you know?
    Wouldn’t such a feat be essentially the same as manufacturing human sperm and eggs from scratch? That would raise the prospect of a human that has no parents.
    But that isn’t technically a chimera. If the mouse or manufactured cells are human then there’s no chimera.

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Joe Carter

    …I think if you’re going to make assertions as to the falsehood of scientific claims, you need to provide some fairly rigorous evidence. Otherwise your readers remain uninformed, and ill-equipped for arguing their case. Would love to hear more on the subject!
    Fair enough. I may have assumed too much by expecting people to infer the reasons chimeric research is being pursued. Here are a few points that need to be made to clarify my assertion that chimeric research will never lead to cures for Alzheimer’s.
    Because there are not enough embryos from IVF, human cloning is needed to create the stem cell lines needed for research. But there are not enough human egg donations to make this feasible, which is one of the primary reasons why scientist turn to the animal kingdom (i.e., rabbit eggs).
    We’ll set aside the question of whether chimeras are useful for anything and assume concede the best case scenario, which is that chimeric research would advance the study of ESCR. Even if this were to occur, it would likely have little effect on cures for Alzheimer’s. ESCR is unlikely to have any significant impact on Alzheimer’s, much less lead to cures for that disease. This myth was squashed several years ago but because it keeps popping up, let’s go over it once more:
    From the WaPo article Stem Cells An Unlikely Therapy for Alzheimer’s (June 10, 2004):

    [T]he infrequently voiced reality, stem cell experts confess, is that, of all the diseases that may someday be cured by embryonic stem cell treatments, Alzheimer’s is among the least likely to benefit.
    “I think the chance of doing repairs to Alzheimer’s brains by putting in stem cells is small,” said stem cell researcher Michael Shelanski, co-director of the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, echoing many other experts. “I personally think we’re going to get other therapies for Alzheimer’s a lot sooner.”…
    But given the lack of any serious suggestion that stem cells themselves have practical potential to treat Alzheimer’s, the Reagan-inspired tidal wave of enthusiasm stands as an example of how easily a modest line of scientific inquiry can grow in the public mind to mythological proportions.
    It is a distortion that some admit is not being aggressively corrected by scientists.
    “To start with, people need a fairy tale,” said Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.” [emphasis added]

    And from Wired magazine, Alzheimer’s: Beyond Stem Cells (June 11, 2004)

    “I just think everybody feels there are higher priorities for seeking effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and for identifying preventive strategies,” said Marilyn Albert, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who chairs the Medical and Scientific Advisory Council of the Alzheimer’s Association.
    Stem cells from human embryos can form all types of cells, and the hope is that they one day could be used to replace cells damaged from such conditions as diabetes, spinal cord injury or Parkinson’s disease. But experts say Alzheimer’s, by the very nature of how it attacks the brain, would pose a far more daunting challenge to that approach.

    Nothing has changed in the past three years, expect for the willingness of some researchers to lie in order to get the funding they want. Oddly enough, the same people who get upset when corporations distort the truth in order to win government contracts don’t blink when scientists make false claims in order to get government grants.
    Either these researchers do not understand the science (and are thus to ill-informed to know what is going on) or they know the truth and believe that lying to the public is necessary to get what they want.
    For all the bluster, I have yet to hear a single researcher explain how chimeras will lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s. Anytime you hear this claim, ask them how this will happen. You’ll likely be met with silence. The most they will do is fall back on their “faith-based” rationales, that the research might someday, somehow, despite everything we know, bring about a miraculous advance. So let me revise my point: Any scientist that claims that chimeric research will eventually lead to cures for Alzheimer’s is an idiot, a liar, or a priest in the church of Scientism.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Wait a second, is Joe trying to double dip and use his old stem-cell sources to support his contention that chimera research cannot produce anything useful? The fact remains that Joe’s assertion is beyond his knowledge to properly evaluate as it is ours.
    Because there are not enough embryos from IVF, human cloning is needed to create the stem cell lines needed for research. But there are not enough human egg donations to make this feasible, which is one of the primary reasons why scientist turn to the animal kingdom (i.e., rabbit eggs).
    This is beyond our knowledge to assert. Either stem cell lines, cloning or chimeras may lead to a situtation where, like blood types, only a few broad ‘template’ lines may be needed that can be tweaked just enough to work for individual patients. Inother words, a personal line may not need to be developed for each patient. Or it may become possible to replace portions of lines DNA with the patient’s DNA. Or perhaps something entirely unexpected might come out of it such as cells that act as little nano-pharmaceutical companies producing drugs directly where the body needs them in exactly the correct micro-doses.

    “I think the chance of doing repairs to Alzheimer’s brains by putting in stem cells is small,” said stem cell researcher Michael Shelanski, co-director of the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, echoing many other experts. “I personally think we’re going to get other therapies for Alzheimer’s a lot sooner.”…

    So write up a grant proposal for research that has better chances of doing something to repair Alzheimer’s brains. Being that the pool of funds is limited that is all that is needed. As I pointed out back when we debated stem cells the Federal ban may actually be counterproductive if you really believe there’s no potential. Since states and private groups are setting up dedicated stem cell R&D funds in response, non-stem cell research ideas that may actually have more potential are automatically excluded from competing for dedicated pools of money. Ironically you may end up with more ethically objectional research than if you just left matters alone and let the grant seekers compete on merit.

  • http://www.gryphmon.com Patrick (gryph)

    I actually pretty much agree with Joe on this one. But….
    Human beings already share genetic material with many other species. Would it be wrong to use DNA that is found in both human beings and apes if the donor is an ape?

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Are you really sure you agree with Joe on this? Take this so-called ‘half-human’ sheep. Is it really such a great thing for ‘human dignity’ that people who need kidneys or lungs or hearts have to sit around hoping some other person gets killed? Or in countries like India purchase a kidney from a desperate poor person? If replacement parts can be grown inside an animal isn’t that a lot better? If instead of using cloned humans to make replacement parts wouldn’t it be better to clone just a few organs?
    As a plus I would imagine such organs would not be rejected by the body’s immune system which means no lifetime on immune suppressing drugs.
    I’m not even sure an argument has been presented here against such a thing. The only thing I heard was the buzzword of human dignity but when human to human transplantation started there were a lot of people who were not so sure it was the right thing to do. I’m sure the same qualms were had over blood transfusions long ago.

  • Mike O

    Any of you scientific experts want to comment on the odds of a pandemic being caused by this research?

  • smmtheory

    Boonton,
    Which side of the debate do you come down on concerning laboratory animal testing of makeup, medicines, and the rest of the laundry list of alleged evils that P.E.T.A. bemoans? The P.E.T.A. side?

  • http://evangelicalperspective.blogspot.com/ Collin Brendemuehl

    Gives new meaning to the old tv show “My Mother the Car”.
    That was before your time, Joe. ;)
    Collin
    http://evangelicalperspective.blogspot.com/

  • Baggi

    Joe,
    I think you forget “true believer”.
    Just about everyone I know who is an athiest or agnostic believes science can cure everything. The stipulation is…. eventually. Science is the answer to all of our problems and even though it may not provide answers now, or looks like it will provide answers in the near future, well, that’s no big deal because it will eventually provide the answers, given enough time.
    Just like monkeys can type out shakespeare if they have enough time.
    So I would add true believer to your list of liars and fools.

  • http://TheEverWiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Boonton,Which side of the debate do you come down on concerning laboratory animal testing of makeup, medicines, and the rest of the laundry list of alleged evils that P.E.T.A. bemoans? The P.E.T.A. side?
    I would generally come down against the PETA side since they tend to take things a bit too far. I would prohibit unnecessary cruelity to animals but so far we do not have the ability to get the safety data we need using non-animal testing.
    Baggi
    Just about everyone I know who is an athiest or agnostic believes science can cure everything. The stipulation is…. eventually. Science is the answer to all of our problems..that’s no big deal because it will eventually provide the answers, given enough time.
    Just like monkeys can type out shakespeare if they have enough time.
    Errr no I wouldn’t quite say the hope that science would eventually find cures (or better treatments for) things like Alzheimer’s is ‘just like’ hypothetical monkey’s typing out Shakespeare.
    I also think serious people who watch science are well aware that all our current crop of diseases will not fall as quickly and easily as some older diseases like polio. But I have no idea what Baggi is trying to say here. Should we just toss up our hands and say Alzheimer’s can never be cured by science? Why? Anyone whose paid attention to, say, the last 100 years would see all the evidence pointing in exactly the opposite direction.

  • ex-preacher

    Does this mean I might own a centaur someday?
    Sweeeeeet!

  • Mike O

    Unless you add a mechanism to recognize when a monkey has typed a correct letter and build on that base, monkeys can not type Shakespeare.

  • smmtheory

    Gives new meaning to the old tv show “My Mother the Car”.

    But Collin, the topic is not so much about making mechanical/biological chimeras, so I think a reference to Mr. Ed would have been more symbolic.

  • Rob Ryan

    “Gives new meaning to the old tv show “My Mother the Car”.
    That was before your time, Joe. ;)”
    Not before mine, unfortunately. I’ll never forget the car spanking her son with the front-seat door. As I recall, the program followed another real stinker entitled “Please Don’t Eat The Daisies”.

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