Are these scientists trying to create a human-monkey hybrid?
Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California have conducted a controversial experiment which entails growing human stem cells within a macaque monkey embryo.
But the scientists aren’t attempting to create a real-life monkey man. Instead, they say, they’re hoping to better understand cell communication at conception.
As a result of their work, the researchers hope they can learn more about human development, disease progression and drug therapies, and eventually, nurture entire human organs into life, making organ transplants via brain dead donors an obsolete procedure.
Currently, there are over 107,000 patients on the waiting list for organs, 17 of whom die each day waiting for a life-saving transplant, according to the US Health Resources and Services Administration.
Despite the need for more viable human tissues, many have called such research dangerous and unethical, fearing it could lead to the man-made creation of a “human-nonhuman” species.
In the lab, these embryos are called monkey-human chimeras, and created in a petri dish — in other words, in vitro fertilization (IVF). The embryos were monitored during a 20-day period and have since been destroyed.
“These chimeric approaches could be really very useful for advancing biomedical research not just at the very earliest stage of life, but also the latest stage of life,” said lead researcher Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte.
Belmonte’s promising new study was published in the journal Cell on Thursday. The report states that the monkey-human chimeras “survived and integrated with better relative efficiency than in the previous experiments in pig tissue.”
The macaque monkey is ideal for such experimentation as their embryonic development is almost identical to humans, according to previous research.
Maintaining that their study was adherent to current ethical and legal guidelines, Belmonte added in a public statement, “Ultimately, we conduct these studies to understand and improve human health.”
However, professor Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, disagrees with the Salk Institute’s approach, and recently told the BBC that this experiment “opens Pandora’s box to human-nonhuman chimeras.”
“These embryos were destroyed at 20 days of development, but it is only a matter of time before human-nonhuman chimeras are successfully developed, perhaps as a source of organs for humans,” Savulescu claimed.
Such research is inherently and unavoidably problematic, according to Dr. Anna Smajdor, ethics specialist at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School.
“The scientists behind this research state that these chimeric embryos offer new opportunities,” because such experiments cannot be performed on humans, Smajdor told the BBC. “But whether these embryos are human or not is open to question.”