Red Ice Membership

Science's new blend mixes man and beast
Not on George W. Bush's watch
2006 02 28

By J. Scott Orr |

Ed Comment: To reconnect with the recent article "Cyborg Superman, Transhumanism and the Nephilim" I want to draw your attention to another superb radio interview with Tom Horn from on Frank Whalen's radio show Frankly Speaking.

Listen Now: Part 1 | Part 2 (These files are linked from

Image credits: Anubis: Anorodoluna, Minatour:, Chimera:

In his State of the Union address last month, the president vowed to pursue legislation to outlaw all forms of "human/animal hybrids," a what-the-heck phrase that may have left Americans wondering if Bush was asking Congress to ban mermaids and centaurs.

It was, instead, a reference to the latest debate over the definition of human life and where to draw the line in merging human and animal cells and genes.

At issue is the creation of so-called "chimeras," generally defined as beings that share human and animal cells. Backers of this brand of biotechnology say chimeras -- named for the mythical Greek monster with a lion's head, goat's body and serpent's tail -- are used routinely by researchers who bear no resemblance to the mad scientist in the H.G. Wells classic "The Island of Dr. Moreau."

A typical chimera might be a mouse endowed with a few human brain cells to make it a better subject for experimentation on treatments for diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.

Another example is the addition of human cells into sheep and pigs in hopes they could be used one day as sources for organs transplanted into humans. Technically speaking, thousands of chimeras are walking around unnoticed every day: people whose faulty heart valves have been replaced by ones harvested from pigs or cows.

While chimeric research is going on at universities and private labs around the world, the technology remains in its infancy and has yet to yield any significant medical breakthroughs.

At Stanford University, professor Irving Weissman has created a mouse with a 1 percent human brain and hopes someday to develop one whose brain is 100 percent human. Studying such a mouse could lead to a better understanding of how human brains develop and are affected by disease.

"There's really a very small amount of research going on now, but it is increasing and will continue to grow," said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Religious conservatives say science, by creating new life forms, is tampering with the work of God. They are joined by some ethicists in warning that the merging of animal and human cells should be banned, lest humankind be faced with all kinds of moral decisions about the rights of newly created man-beasts.

The critics of hybrid research agree scientists cannot be trusted to serve as the morality police of their own laboratories.

"My sense is that we will see the development of human/animal hybrids, mammals that have more and more bits of human in them. You can see a progression developing here that you might not be able to stop," said Nigel Cameron, a research professor of bioethics at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

"If people say 'Trust the scientists,' what if we were talking about war and they were saying 'Trust the generals'? Scientists defining science policy is terrifying."

Prohibition Act
In his State of the Union address Jan. 31, Bush mentioned human/animal hybrids during a right-to-life passage in which he called human life "a gift from our Creator -- and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale."

"Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human/animal hybrids, and buying, selling, or patenting human embryos," Bush said.

Among those applauding that night was Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), the religious right's favored candidate for president in 2008 and one of America's foremost anti-chimera activists. He is the sponsor of the Human Chimera Prohibition Act, which among other things would ban fertilizing nonhuman eggs with human sperm or vice versa, if that ever became possible.

Brownback's bill would ban all kinds of interspecies mingling out of "respect for human dignity and the integrity of the human species." The bill also notes that the commingling of cells is a ready way to spread diseases, such as avian flu, from animals to humans.

Those who object on moral grounds to research on embryonic stem cells have the same concerns about chimera research if it, too, leads to destruction of human embryos.

David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the conservative Family Resource Council, said banning human/animal hybrids should not apply to laboratory animals invested with a few human cells. But he said his group would object to tampering with human embryos by adding animal genes.

"The only reason to do that would seem to be to try and make that embryo less than human and make it available for research. It's science run amok. It's not a necessary direction that we want or need to go in," Prentice said.

No Sphinxes
Hank Greely, a professor at Stanford University's Center for Law and Bioethics, said the human race has nothing to fear from today's chimeras.

"What they are focused on is putting human cells, human stem cells, into animals for use as laboratory research tools. Nobody is trying to make a wolf man or a sphinx," Greely said.

"We could study tumors by putting them into people instead of humanized lab rats, but that would be wrong. People are not good lab animals."

Arthur Caplan, who heads the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said he was a bit surprised to hear the president talking about human/animal hybrids in the context of the State of the Union.

"I bet a lot of people thought he was going to ban Minotaurs and round up the mermaids," Caplan joked.

"It was really a bone thrown out to conservatives who knew exactly what he meant," Caplan said. "What they are concerned about is embryo destruction, as if the embryo is a person."

Prentice said those conservative concerns should not be dismissed. He said allowing chimera science to go unrestricted could produce some serious moral dilemmas.

"There should be a line fairly sharply drawn about how human you should make animals before you really start to think that the chimp is going to start talking with you," Prentice said. "We don't want to go to the Island of Dr. Moreau."

J. Scott Orr covers government and national issues.

2006 The Star Ledger

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