There's suddenly a huge bioethics debate going on about whether or not lab science should include the implantation of human stem cells in nonhuman animals. It's the sort of thing that conjures images from the original book on the topic, The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which demonic, animal-human hybrid creatures turn on their promethean mad scientist creator.
That H.G. Wells science fiction novel was actually invoked by name Friday afternoon at a workshop hosted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and broadcast online. It featured titans of the bioethics field, including Hank Greeley, director of the Stanford Center on Law and the Biosciences. The book came up when an attendee asked Greeley a question about lab mice with human minds screaming to be let go.
Based on where we are technologically, Greeley said, the scenario in question "sounds more like The Metamorphosis by Kafka than The Island of Dr. Moreau." Greeley also addressed the other reference point frequently used outside the scientific community: the famous mouse with an ear on its back created by Dr. Joseph Vacanti. While that mouse may be an "iconic image," Greeley said, the mouse was actually implanted with bovine parts, and "had no human tissue at all."
Why is the scientific community suddenly hammering out the ethics of this form of stem cell research at the behest of the federal government? It's because the NIH suddenly halted funding of research along these lines back in September. The moratorium covers, all "research in which human pluripotent cells are introduced into non-human vertebrate animal pre-gastrulation stage embryos," banning such study indefinitely, until some point in the future when the NIH issues a "policy notification."
Injection of human stem cells into lab animals mingles the DNA of two organisms: humans and whatever animal lab animal is being used as a test subject—frequently mice and rats. This arguably makes the lab animal a chimera, sometimes referred to as a "hybrid." But how human that chimera's mental and emotional capacities can be, and what it even means to be part human, is not exactly clear, and the NIH has now decided it's uncomfortable with that. Friday's workshop was a possible early step in the creation of a clearer policy that the NIH moratorium says the agency plans to create.
"I feel as if I've been transported about eight to ten years back in time," Greeley said at the workshop. He was referring to a period in the mid-to-late 2000s when conservatives in the US government flirted with policies that would have made the US less friendly to stem cell research.
After a series of panels discussing the issue more generally, the final panel at the workshop focused on specific steps that had been taken to put the federal government more at ease with this type of research, and steps that might be taken in the future.
Jonathan Kimmelman, chairman of the ethics committee at the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), pointed out the elaborate system of ethical safeguards that have been put in place. Not all insertion of human DNA into animals for testing purposes has been determined to have the same level of potential harm, so practices have been sorted into green, yellow, and red light-labeled activities. Thus, the ISSCR actively discourages "red light" and "yellow light" experiments involving the "prospect of the emergence of sentience" or the "emergence of humanized mental attributes," he said.
However, Kimmelman also pointed out that recent developments in bioethics had made the NIH's sudden reevaluation of these ethical issues seem reasonable. For instance, the reclassification of chimpanzees into a category where regulators now "forbid any kind of invasive research on them," is a new way of looking at the mental capacities of animals, which he said is something that deserves consideration in this debate.
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