Where’s the right balance between ethics and research in medicine?
In a controversial move last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) posted a blog. It said it will be changing its policies, last revised in 2009. It is now developing policies to allow human stem cells to be placed in animal embryos, creating a genetically modified human-animal hybrid for research. This class of new being is called a chimera. Or, as NIH put it, “we propose to slightly expand the current prohibition on the introduction of human pluripotent cells into non-human primate embryos.”
The business repercussions of this policy shift are broad and will ripple through to business interests from health startups to established institutions. Healthcare is a almost a fifth of the U.S. economy. And NIH is not just any old agency.
When NIH sneezes, the healthcare business catches pneumonia.
NIH invests $32.3 billion of our tax dollars in medical research every year. That means its research policies help drive tempo in new product development. Over 80% of this budget is pieced out in 50,000 or so annual grants. Just to give you a sense, this year, they’ve funded startup 23&Me with over $250,000 in grant money. Cell Biologics, Inc., a for-profit in Chicago, got over $300,000. My alma mater, Baylor, has won nearly $6 million. University of California received well over $100 million. (Peruse the public data.)
Pain and profit
“It’s not something that scientists are doing merely because they can,” said Carrie D Wolinetz, Ph.D, Associate Director for Science Policy, NIH, in an interview with NPR. “They’re doing it because it’s critical to help our understanding of terrible diseases facing real people.”
Animal-human chimeras and business
Whether you love or hate chimera research, written between the lines of the policy shift is NIH’s intention to support the healthcare business community in staying at the top of the world’s medical research. Remember those 50,000 annual competitive grants? NIH knows what the science and medical community most requests in funding.
Insoo Hyun, a professor of bioethics and philosophy at Case Western Reserve University, which received $133 million in NIH grants so far this year, recently gave an interview to NPR in support of this research. He’s not alone. Urban Weissman, Ph.D, at the Stanford University School of Medicine, commented to NPR that, “If we can find ways to understand and treat horrible, human diseases this way, then we should go forward cautiously.”
Pablo Ross, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Davis, is trying to grow human organs in farm animals. According to US Health & Services, twenty Americans die a day from not receiving a timely transplant. “It’s very, very welcome news that NIH will consider funding this type of research,” he said.
Chimeras open avenues for disease modeling, drug testing, and organ transplant that are just short of human testing. Wolinetz comments, “at the end of the day, we want to make sure this research progresses, because it’s very important to our understanding of disease . . . but we also want to make sure there is an extra set of eyes on these projects.” Public comments are welcome until midnight on September 6.