Earlier this year, Congress failed to pass a U.S. ban on chimera research, a form of experimentation few Americans know about but one that could test the moral and ethical boundaries of science.
On May 26, the Senate failed to pass an amendment introduced by Republican Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma, Steve Daines of Montana and Mike Braun of Indiana. That amendment would have banned chimera research in the U.S. — experiments to create certain types of human-animal hybrids (chimera), thus allowing the nation’s scientists to compete with Chinese innovation, according to a Fox News report.
In his argument against allowing the research, Braun said, “Human life is distinct and sacred, and research that creates an animal-human hybrid or transfers a human embryo into an animal womb or vice versa should be completely prohibited and engaging in such unethical experiments should be a crime.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) countered Braun, saying the ban “undermines scientifically significant research that could actually help develop new treatments and ultimately lead to lifesaving organ transplants.”
In Greek mythology, Chimera is the frightening, fire-breathing, hybrid creature of Lycia in Asia Minor — a female monster with a lion’s head, a goat and dragon’s body, and a serpent’s tail. She is considered an evil, genetic puzzle.
Biologists have chosen the word “chimera” to describe an organism containing mixtures of genetically different tissues formed by scientific processes that include early embryo fusion, grafting or mutation.
Chimeras sometimes occur in nature. National Geographic reports that most male tortoiseshell cats are chimeras, their distinctive mottled orange and black coat a sign that the cat has an extra X chromosome. Walter Reeves, aka The Georgia Gardener, notes on his website that “many common variegated plants originally came from leaf chimeras: variegated dogwood, variegated vinca vine, ‘Burgundy Glow’ ajuga, variegated hosta [and] variegated hydrangea.”
In laboratories today, chimera means the bioengineering and experimentation of human-animal hybrid species, a medical research procedure that splices animal cells with those of aborted human babies, according to The Federalist.
“To make a chimera, you take some developing cells from one animal and stick in some developing cells from another animal,” stated Dr. F. Perry Wilson on Medscape. “The trick is figuring out what cells you want to inject.”
While it sounds like the stuff of science fiction, chimera research is not new. Scientists first grew human embryonic stem cells in laboratories in 1998. According to FactCheck.org, two years later in August 2000 under President Bill Clinton, the National Institutes of Health prohibited funding research “in which human pluripotent stem cells are combined with an animal embryo.”
In 2003, Chinese scientists fused human cells with rabbit eggs to produce the first human-animal hybrid. Several years later, Mayo Clinic researchers created pigs with human blood running through their veins, and University of Nevada scientists created sheep whose livers and hearts were largely human, thegospelcoalition.org reported.
In his 2006 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush, called the “creation of human-animal hybrids” one of the “most egregious abuses of medical research.”
President Barack Obama halted and outlawed federal funding for chimera research in the U.S. in the fall of 2014.
According to the NIH, animal-human hybrids hold “tremendous potential for disease modeling, drug testing and perhaps eventual organ transplant,” The Gospel Coalition reported.
It allows researchers to experiment on human cells inside a living (animal) organism … human cells that will develop into specific tissues or organs for potential transplants, according to TGC.
Other researchers see potential insight into human biology and disease development. For instance, animal models with human cells in the brain can allow scientists to study brain diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.
“Imagine pigs with human hearts or mice whose brains have a spark of human intelligence,” The Wall Street Journal said, reporting that “scientists are cultivating a flock of such experimental creations … by injecting potent human cells into mice, rats, pigs and cows. They hope the new combinations might one day be used to grow human organs for transplants.”
China already has done extensive and successful chimera experimentation that could potentially humanize the biology of laboratory animals.
Recently, they created human-monkey embryos that lived for 20 days in a laboratory. Not everyone, however, agrees that the benefits of chimera research and practice will outweigh the moral, ethical and theological dimensions of such experimentation.
They ask: When human and animal materials are mixed for scientific research, is there still a boundary between human and animal? And if so, is the crossing of the boundary morally wrong?
Some scientists, like Stanford University bioethicist Henry Greely, think science may be pushing the ethical envelope and trespassing ethical boundaries yet uncrossed. He believes that as long as the embryo chimera stays in a laboratory dish, there shouldn’t be concern, The Wall Street Journal reported, but “if you actually try to gestate such a thing, particularly if you can bring it successfully to term, then the issues get more significant.”
The potential of chimera research and experimentation opens a Pandora’s box of questions, including:
- What exactly does it mean to be human?
- If a small percentage of human embryonic stem cells are injected early into a monkey, for instance, and the gestation is brought to term and delivered, is the chimera human or monkey?
Status in question
- Would such research confer upon an animal the moral status of a normal human adult, but then impermissibly fail to accord it the protections it merits in virtue of its enhanced moral status?
- Should certain human-animal hybrids be brought into existence, and if so, how should they be treated?
- What is the moral status of human-animal chimeras with brains that are partly or wholly composed of human cells?
- Might the placing of human cells into a mouse brain lead to human-like cognitive functions? If so, where is the line between us and them? Would theologians ask whether a humanized mouse or gorilla could grow a soul?
- Does chimera creation violate the species barrier instituted by the Creator, Who drew a sharp line between “kinds” (Gen. 1:11)? Do the biblical “kinds” mean “species”?
- Do animals with human cells have a soul for whom Christ died and offered salvation?
- Does producing these human-animal creatures threaten to undermine human dignity? Is the chimera a human or a beast?
- Should adult human and non-human hybrids be allowed to breed, to reproduce?
- With the introduction of human DNA, could experimental animals be “too human” to dispose of after the research process ends?
- As Ted Peters, professor of systematic theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley mused: “If we place human embryonic stem cells into the brain tissue of a chimpanzee, might the chimp look us in the eye and say, ‘Thanks for the genetic enhancement. Now, where do I register to vote?’”
According to the Christian Medical and Dental Association, there are “compelling moral reasons to refrain from applying biotechnology to create chimeras or hybrid organisms that are partly human and partly nonhuman … we should not be creating intermediate or indeterminate species sharing human and animal genetic material [that] fundamentally alters human nature as designed by God.”
Some believe the May 26 ruling shows utter disregard for the value and dignity of human life and allows unborn humans at any stage of development to be experimented on, manipulated and destroyed.
“This is a place where we need to make a solid stand that enough is enough,” Braun said, “ and we don’t go any further with it.”
ISSCR changes human embryo research rule
The International Society for Stem Cell Research announced in May it no longer endorses a longstanding ethical limitation on human embryo research.
For decades the scientific community has observed the so-called 14-day rule. This ethical guideline — first formulated in the United Kingdom under the Warnock Commission in the mid-1980s — requires that embryos may only be gestated for 14 days after conception in the lab.
Lifting the 14-day rule means human embryos in the laboratory can be developed to a more mature stage.
For those who are pro-life, the 14-day rule is already a bridge too far, said Ben Mitchell, a research fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. This rule permits the generation of human embryos in the lab and requires researchers to destroy them by the 14th day.
They want a policy that will allow them to perform research on living members of the species Homo sapiens from conception onward, Mitchell said. They want permission to research using living human embryos, not mouse embryos, dog embryos or other species.
Research using human subjects, whether at the embryonic stage or at the end of life, requires utmost respect for the nature and sanctity of human life, Mitchell said. Until researchers can be sure they are not crossing the line by trampling on the sanctity of human embryos, they should resist those experiments, he said.
To complicate matters, two teams have “embryo-like entities” called human blastoids.
Currently human embryo research may not be done with tax payer dollars. (ERLC, TAB Media)