The recent creation of animal-human hybrids is stirring up ethical questions about the value and definition of human life.
In January, scientists announced that they successfully created the first human-pig hybrid, a living pig embryo injected with human cells.
National Geographic reports researchers at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California said they implanted the living pig-human embryos, or chimeras, in adult pigs’ wombs and allowed them to grow between three and four weeks. Later, the scientists said they removed the creatures, which then died, and studied them. Reports say the chimeras were pigs but had some human characteristics.
The researchers’ goal is to use chimeras to grown human organs for transplant using the patient’s own cells. They said this process could grow organs quickly and reduce the chance of the patient’s body rejecting the organ because it is grown using their own cells.
The research team said they have a long way to go before this becomes a reality, but their experiment already is raising many ethical concerns.
Kevin LeRoy, deputy solicitor general for Wisconsin, wrote a column for The Federalist this week questioning whether creating and killing a living creature with human characteristics is OK.
Jun Wu, a lead study author, told National Geographic that the researchers created 186 later-stage pig-human embryos that survived until removed from the womb.
“… we estimate [each had] about one in 100,000 human cells,” Wu said.
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But at what point is the hybrid creature human, and is it ok to kill such a being? LeRoy pondered.
[O]ur researcher friends seem to have given short shrift to preliminary question. Imagine, instead of announcing they have created a mostly pig chimera, our researchers had announced the creation of a chimera comprising a single pig cell in an otherwise all-human-cell body. They then detailed their plan to gestate this mostly human chimera for nine months, mature it for 18 years, and then to promptly harvest its organs.
Such an announcement would not be warmly received. Indeed, I expect we would respond with condemnation. If this expectation were true, then it seems we should have answered the following question before we traveled down the chimera rabbit hole: how much of a human can a creature be before it is a human?
LeRoy argued that the number of cells alone should not determine a human-hybrid’s worth, writing:
Yet to draw this line, we cannot simply rely on the number of human cells in the chimera—as in, the more human cells the creature has, the more human it is. In other circumstances the mere number of cells in a creature doesn’t make it more or less of what it is. A fertilized human egg is an individual human, despite the fact that this human is, for a short time, only one cell.
LeRoy said he does not have the answers, but he argued that these ethical puzzles should be examined more thoroughly before experimenting continues, not after.
“When we are faced with such a grave question—’When exactly is the object of our manipulation a beast and when is it a brother?’—acting before answering is not the correct response, even when the benefits are extraordinary,” LeRoy wrote.
Project leader Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte basically admitted to having similar concerns in a statement in the India Times:
Concerns have been expressed over the ethics of this experiment and anxiety over what animals with human brains mean to society. Belmonte said, “The idea of having an animal being born composing of human cells creates some feelings that need to be addressed. Not everything that science can do we should do. We are not living in a niche lab, we live with other people – and society needs to decide what can be done. Our next challenge is to improve efficiency and guide the human cells into forming a particular organ in pigs.”
Bioethicist Wesley Smith previously warned about experiments with human-animal hybrids and scientists who police themselves, because they sometimes throw ethics and a respect for human life out the window.