Human-animal hybrid research continues despite federal funding ban

by Gregory Tomlin |

(REUTERS/Charles Platiau)A chimera of Notre Dame Cathedral overlooks the French capital of Paris, France, January 14, 2016. These chimeras, creatures designed by Viollet-le-duc in the 19th century, are hybrid beasts and mythical monsters perching on the towers.

NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – Despite a ban on federal funding for "Chimera" research – or the mixing of human genes with those of other members of the animal kingdom – several research centers and universities in the U.S. are moving forward with the process, MIT Technology Review has reported.

Scientists involved in the research claim they are looking for ways to create and harvest human organs from other animals, such as sheep and goats, by inserting human DNA ("pluripotent cells") in animal embryos. Critics see the potential for disaster – the creation of a beast like the mythical Chimera, made up of a lion, a goat and a serpent (or dragon).

Scientists suggest nothing of the sort could occur since the amount of human biological material inserted into the animal is so small, but the National Institutes of Health believes the research could, in fact, alter an animal's "cognitive state." That is why the NIH – like the Greek hero Bellephoron – is trying to kill Chimera.

In September, the agency posted an announcement that it would not fund Chimera research, taking a conservative approach to the potential ethical problems the hybrids could create.

My view is that the contribution of human cells is going to be minimal, maybe 3 percent, maybe 5 percent. But what if they contributed to 100 percent of the brain? What if the embryo that develops is mostly human? It's something that we don't expect, but no one has done this experiment, so we can't rule it out.
- Pablo Ross, UC Davis

"The NIH action was triggered after it learned that scientists had begun such experiments with support from other funding sources, including from California's state stem-cell agency. The human-animal mixtures are being created by injecting human stem cells into days-old animal embryos, then gestating these in female livestock," the journal reports.

While none of the embryos were allowed to come to term, the journal estimates that at least 20 Chimeras have been produced, creating what one commentator called "an early proof-of-principle step towards growing human organs inside animal tissue."

In presentations in November at the NIH's campus in Maryland, researcher Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte illustrated progress in the practice by showing data on pig embryos containing human biological material.

Belmonte is employed by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which focuses on cures for disease. He is researching how to use "pluripotent cells," which can become any type of human tissue, to return adult cells back to the embryonic state in the hopes of curing congenital defects.

Another presentation from the University of Minnesota featured photos of a two-month-old pig fetus where the practice had been successful and a congenital eye condition reversed. Daniel Garry, a cardiologist at the university, told MIT Technology Review that researchers currently have the ability to "create an animal without a heart."

"We have engineered pigs that lack skeletal muscles and blood vessels," Garry said.

The animals are, of course, not viable organisms without their key components, but according to the principle of the research, scientists believe they could insert human cells into the embryo – such as one without a heart – and let the human cells take over. In that case, a human heart would grow inside of a swine and that heart could later be transplanted into a human.

The idea has earned Garry and the university a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Army (presumably to see if replacement hearts can be grown for injured soldiers).

Still, many are still concerned that the introduction of human DNA could render the animals "too human" simply to dispose of in the research process.

That is why Pablo Ross, a veterinarian and developmental biologist at the University of California-Davis does not want fully developed hybrid animals in the program.

"My view is that the contribution of human cells is going to be minimal, maybe 3 percent, maybe 5 percent. But what if they contributed to 100 percent of the brain? What if the embryo that develops is mostly human? It's something that we don't expect, but no one has done this experiment, so we can't rule it out," Ross said.

The development of higher level thinking in the animals could happen, if the findings of a 2014 study are correct. Scientists have already created mice with a brain comprised of both mouse and human brain cells. According to the research, the mice with human brain cells were significantly smarter than the control mice.

It is findings like these that lead scientists to believe the research should continue, even if the federal spigot is turned off. They are also working to reverse the federal ban.

In November, researchers at Stanford University penned a letter to the NIH asking it to allow funding for Chimera research and lift its "shadow of negativity" over the research.

"The current NIH restriction serves as a significant impediment to major scientific progress in the fields of stem cell and developmental biology and regenerative medicine and should be lifted as soon as possible," the letter said. It also claimed current research does not evidence the kind of human-animal monster many fear.

Even without federal funding, research continues in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom (Chimera research is legal there if the embryos are destroyed within 14 days). One funding mechanism is the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which refers to itself as the state's "stem cell agency." The CIRM was created by the state to allow for independent stem cell research even when political winds do not blow in its favor.