A new ethics report voices serious concerns about using animal-human embryonic hybrids in drug testing. The report is published by the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics (SCHB) and was written in the light of new draft legislation on human embryo research being prepared by the UK Department of Health.
The creation of such hybrids is a relatively recent phenomenon with some scientists claiming the more humanlike the animal, the better she can serve as research model for testing drugs or for tissue engineering and growing "spare parts," such as livers, to transplant into humans. The SCHB report called for a total ban on this type of research.
Egenis post graduate student Jean Harrington has studied arguments in this field and noted “This document takes a very ambivalent position, on the one hand you have substantial appraisal of science and past achievements in this particular field of research on the other the text calls for strict prohibition of chimera production, the effect of which is a halt of a series of currently promising research pathways.”
In 1998 the first report of a type of human-animal chimera surfaced after Human DNA was inserted into in a cow egg. In 2003 Dr Sheng in Shanghai created a rabbit –human hybrid, in much the same manner: only this time the gamete was allowed to divide to the 100 cell stage.
In 2005 Ian Wilmut, a scientist well known through the cloning of Dolly the sheep, applied for permission to insert human DNA into animal cells in experiments that looked for a cure for motor neuron disease. Using animal eggs in research could avoid the ethical problems of using human eggs in experimental science.
“One important question discussed at present is whether such zygotes created from human and animal parts are human or not. Do they fall under the jurisdiction of the HFEA? At the moment legal responsibility in the UK is not clear. “
Jean Harrington explained that the Scottish report appeared to overreact to the current lack of legislation. “The Scottish report paints an emotive picture at its start, mentioning the chimera myth, a ‘lonely monster’. It projects far beyond the science as it stands, where research is restricted to early zygote development. Then it moves on to cite the precautionary and proportionality principles in order to argue for prohibition of that research. In the end the argument, if there is a clear one, is a kind of slippery slope argument. These kinds of arguments usually conclude that if you take step A, step B will follow and you end up in a moral or social abyss. The authors of the report have named the abyss as the “lonely monster”, a ficticious sentient being, which is not intended in, nor in the reach of, the current research projects and how they are designed. The report discounts the debates and legislation that accompany science as it progresses.’’
* To speak to a researcher about this topic, please first contact Ginny Russell, Egenis External Relations Officer on 01392 269138.