In an experiment regarding genetic engineering, Cell, which is a famous scientific journal, explained that a breakthrough research has been done. An embryo was successfully created by bioengineering which combined both human as well as pig DNA. The results of the experiment, “raise the possibility of xeno-generating transplantable human tissues and organs towards addressing the worldwide shortage of organ donors,” as explained by the journal. Though the embryo was able to grow for a few days, this experiment again raised the issue that whether it would be healthy to create animal-human hybrids or was it a horrifying nightmare waiting to occur.
During the year 2015, when National Institutes of Health (NIH) froze its experiments to combine human and animal cells, the government decided to hold a meeting to discuss the implications of such meetings. David Resnik, who is the NIH ethicist, explained that, “NIH feared that the spectre of an intelligent mouse stuck in a laboratory somewhere screaming ‘I want to get out”.
Though it might be a fact that the NIH is just providing a word of caution, but still there are various potential hazardous dilemmas which needed to be sorted out before moving forward. There is no valid explanation about how these embryos might develop with the human parts located on or inside the pig body. Some human parts such as the stomach are of much less concern as compared to certain vital parts such as the brains. Just to enquire about the pros and cons of these experiments, we consulted a medical ethicist from the Langone Medical Center of New York University, Arthur Caplan. The following are some of the highlights of the interview.
What concerns have ethicists raised when they saw the human-pig hybrid embryo?
Arthur Caplan: People go, “Well, is this adequately regulated? Did they have enough approval or oversight to do the experiment?”
I think they did, but that’s certainly a debating point: whether there ought to be [more governing bodies] examining what’s going on in a more transparent way.
What would those groups be looking for?
They wouldn’t be looking for much different. They would just be making it known to the public that these experiments were coming. They have much more of a shock value. This reminds me of when Dolly the sheep was cloned. It just got kind of announced in the newspaper. And people were like, “What the hell? Who did that? Why’d they do that? What’s going on?” This has some elements of that: shock value because people aren’t expecting it and all of a sudden they hear someone say, “Now they’re making animal-human people.”
OK, so was this tantamount to making animal-human people?
No. Certainly there’s a risk that something could go haywire, and cells going where you don’t want them, like the brain, or some other place. But that’s a pretty low-risk phenomenon. It’s a risk, but it’s low-risk. And you could certainly stop the development of the animal if you had any reason to think that was occurring.
The brain cells would still be physically inside a pig, so…
And with a pig’s nervous system, so I don’t know! It’s hard to know what the hell that would be. It certainly wouldn’t be human. It wouldn’t be like there was a homunculus inside the pig. [And] having some cells that are partly human in the brain undoubtedly isn’t going to be a fully formed brain.
If that’s not the worry, then what is?
I think what we don’t want to happen is making cross-species people. We all agree on that. That’s the good news. I don’t think anybody’s particularly interested in making minotaurs, or griffins, or other types of cross-species animal. There’s just a shortage or organs and tissues and things for transplant. So I think the motivation is good, and I think the scientists who did the work are very competent.