Should the U.S. government use tax dollars to fund scientists fusing human stem cells into early animal embryos in order to create “chimeras” that are part human and part pig? Or part mouse?
The U.S. National Institutes of Health says the answer is yes. The agency announced Thursday that it plans to lift a moratorium that since last year has blocked taxpayers’ money from flowing to this type of hot-button research.
Carrie Wolinetz, the NIH’s associate director for policy, said experiments to inject human stem cells into early-stage animal embryos “are really important and exciting to understand how disease works” and to explore new medical treatments.
At the same time, the agency is proposing stricter controls on certain experiments most likely to lead to monkey-men or other bad science fiction…
And bad science fiction it would be. Unless requisite technology becomes as cheap as, say, drones from a big-box electronics chain, no for-real scientist is going to waste a chunk of their budget on “thrilling” experiments capable of attracting Sharknado movie producers or the religion police.
Human-animal mixtures aren’t new. Wolinetz noted in a statement that biomedical researchers “have created and used animal models containing human cells for decades” to gain insights into biology and disease. Scientists often grow human tumors inside of mice, for example.
But the new research is different, because potent human stem cells are being injected directly into a very early-stage animal embryo, consisting of just a couple of dozen cells. Theoretically, the human cells could then end up contributing to any part of the animal, and in any amount…
What’s the point of such experiments? One is that it might be possible to create an otherwise normal pig whose entire heart—or whole liver—is made from human cells. That would create a new way to farm human organs for transplant.
The issue was clearly a delicate one for the NIH, which was caught between advancing science and a possible political bombshell that could lead to public backlash. The agency said it would form a special committee to oversee funding of these human-animal mixtures—a move that could raise questions over political interference in science.
Pretty much every other nation capable of such research has already marched forward past the artificial political boundaries constructed by religion in the United States. Even if we avoid the short-term political limits appropriate to clown show politicians like George W or Donald Trump, our world-class scientific institutions and universities have to confront both federal and state limits put in place by legislators in mortal fear of know-nothing voters. Every day, every month, every year.