An ethically questionable new genetic technique attempts to grow human organs inside of pigs.
The full NPR audio story:
In the world of organ donation, if someone desperately needs a transplant, but they don’t receive one in time, they die. But what if the sick were no longer reliant on organ donors to survive?
That’s a future we could soon be living in, according to new research by reproductive biologist Pablo Ross. In what could be a medical breakthrough, Dr. Ross removes the gene from pig embryos that makes their pancreas, then injects those embryos with human stem cells in an attempt to prove a pig can grow the human organ. And because the stem cells can be made from an adult human’s skin cells, any organ that grows would exactly match the human genetic source.
In a way, this is creating a two species hybrid, or chimera. Dr. Ross addressed the controversy over this new field of research saying,
“We’re not trying to make a chimera just because we want to see some kind of monstrous creature. We’re doing this for a biomedical purpose. I don’t consider that we’re playing God or even close to that. We’re just trying to use the technologies that we have developed to improve peoples’ life.”
One of the arguments against this research is that the stem cells could go anywhere. They could grow into a pancreas as intended, but they could also grow into some other organ, like a brain, potentially creating an animal with human-like brain function. Of course, at this point we have no idea how a pig with a human mind would behave or what it’s needs would be.
“One of the concerns that a lot of people have is that there’s something sacrosanct about what it means to be human expressed in our DNA and that by inserting that into other animals and giving those other animals potentially some of the capacities of humans that this could be a kind of violation — a kind of, maybe, even playing God.”
But Dr. Ross argues he too is concerned about this and is only allowing the embryos to develop for 28 days before removing and dissecting them, “we’re very aware and sensitive to the ethical concerns. One of the reasons we’re doing this research the way we’re doing it is because we want to provide scientific information to inform those concerns.”
For now, the National Institutes of Health has imposed a moratorium on funding while they explore the ethics of chimera research. The US Defense Department, though, is funding the project, which raises an entirely different set of questions.
But leaving aside the possibility of chimera soldiers for now, there are many ethical questions. What if a chimera escaped or was smuggled out of the lab and began breeding with other animals–the spread of human/animal DNA could be rampant. Also, if humans are so closely genetically related to pigs that our body parts can be grown inside of them, is it still ethical to use pigs for research, or to eat them?
Despite the dangers of further diluting our humanity with this type of research, our species has a long history of putting self-interest ahead of ethical and moral concerns. And, like the future that has surely been envisioned by some Sci-Fi writer, one can imagine how the seductive possibility of extending our already long lives could result in a future where factory farms are filled with pigs that not only provide us meat, but also beating hearts, kidneys, livers, and lungs.
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