A real-life Doctor Moreau? The Japanese government has given a scientist permission to experiment with combining animal and human cells to transplant into surrogate animals – what is the goal for these chimeras?
A stem-cell scientist in Japan is the first to be given government support to experiment with combining animal and human cells to transplant into surrogate animals, essentially creating chimeras that are animal-human hybrids.
Until March of this year, Japan had expressly forbidden the practice of growing animal embryos that contain human cells beyond 14 days, as well as transplanting hybrid embryos into a surrogate uterus. But now, Japan will allow human-animal embryos to be brought to term and to be transplanted into surrogate animals.
In the 1896 science fiction classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H. G. Wells, the mad scientist creates human-like hybrid beings via vivisection.
The stem-cell scientist Japan approved for creating chimeras, Hiromitsu Nakauchi, leads teams at the University of Tokyo and Stanford University in California. He is planning to grow human cells in the embryos of mice and rats, then transplant those embryos into other surrogate animals, Scientific American reports.
If the experiments are successful, they will be taken up the chain on larger mammals, ultimately on pigs and sheep. In fact, Nakauchi plans to apply for government approval to grow hybrid embryos in pigs for up to 70 days.
The end goal is to produce animals that have organs made of human cells that can then be transplanted into people.
The novel The Island of Doctor Moreau is a morality tale, raising ethical, philosophical, and scientific concerns. It explored pain and cruelty, moral responsibility, human identity, and human interference with nature.
Besides the questionable treatment of the animals involved in the experimentation, bioethicists have concerns over the possibility that human cells might stray beyond the development of the targeted organ the scientists are growing, traveling to the developing brain of the surrogate animal, potentially affecting its cognition.
Hypothetically, if growing organs in animals for human transplantation is successful, the question can’t be avoided: Will the organs grown for human transplantation be chimeras, meaning, will they also contain the DNA of the animal? And if so, can such cells be inherited through reproduction?
Lastly, one can never disregard the necessity of strict procedures to ensure such cells never get outside the lab into other animals or humans.
In Greek mythology, a chimera is a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. However, in genetics, a chimera is defined as a single organism made up of cells from two or more individuals, meaning, two sets of DNA that have the code to make two separate organisms.
Human chimeras, although rare, can happen when people have two different sets of DNA. One way this occurs is when a woman is pregnant with fraternal twins and one embryo dies very early on. The other embryo can “absorb” its twin’s cells and the baby ends up with two sets of DNA, Insider reports. Another way, on a smaller scale, is after a bone marrow transplant, and the donor’s bone marrow keeps making blood cells that have the donor’s DNA.