Human-animal hybrids? No longer is it simply the stuff of science fiction. On August 4th, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a proposed policy that would lift the longstanding moratorium on the taxpayer funding of certain experiments creating embryos that are part human, part animal, known as “chimeras,” and even letting them grow into adult form.
NIH solicited comments on their proposal, and FRC signed on to detailed comments with the Charlotte Lozier Institute regarding the science and ethics of such research. The comments oppose the NIH proposal and note that ethical and scientifically valid alternatives exist to satisfy scientific demands.
To view the PDF of the full comment, visit this link.
Under the new NIH policy, human stem cells, adult or embryonic, could be added so early in the animal’s embryonic development that they could potentially become any organ or organ system within the maturing human-animal hybrid. Chimera researcher Dr. Izpisúa Belmonte himself admitted “We don’t know how to guide the cells to become the cells we want.” Human cells might contribute to the animal’s brain or reproductive organs, which could cause changes to the animal’s cognitive abilities or produce human sex cells. This research could thereby significantly blur the line between humans and animals, and undermine human dignity, as well as further incentivize the destruction of human embryos.
Nothing in the new policy prohibits such unethical outcomes, and in fact, the new policy explicitly allows research in which there is “substantial contribution or a substantial functional modification to the animal brain by the human cells” and anticipates the creation of chimeras in which “human…stem cells may contribute to the germ line,” that is, animals producing human sex cells. And while the new policy would technically prohibit chimeras from breeding, there is no clear or feasible way for NIH to enforce this ban.
To be sure, NIH is proposing this new human-animal hybrid research on the basis of its potential benefits, such as creating animal models of human diseases in order to prevent and treat illnesses, as well as to create human organs for donation that will adapt better to the human immune system. But it is one thing to conduct non-controversial, ethical research using human cells or DNA in animals, to test the cells for repair, or even to grow an organ. It is quite another thing to significantly modify an animal in a way that undermines the key pillars of human species identity by giving an animal a substantially human brain or reproductive capacities.
Far from advancing the human race, creating animal and human hybrids that leave in question their humanity undermines our own. Good science is also ethical science, and supports biotechnologies that advance scientific knowledge and medical treatments, while valuing all human life and maintaining human dignity. Science should never progress nor should human life be advanced at the expense of human life or dignity. Research involving human adult stem cells is one such promising way forward.
If NIH fails to protect human dignity in research funded by federal taxpayers, Congress once again may be forced to step in. For the fiscal year 2016 federal spending bill, Congress did so when it banned the FDA’s approval on research creating genetically modified embryos, such as three-parent embryos, in which the genetically modified information or traits can be passed on. At the very least we should not have our federal tax dollars subsidize the NIH’s new proposed human-animal hybrid research that could blur the line between humans and animals. To do so would undermine the very fabric of our moral order—the affirmation and respect for human dignity.