This week on The Digital Life, we discuss human-animal chimeras and bioethics. If you know your Greek mythology, you might be familiar with the chimera — a monstrous fire-breathing hybrid creature, part lion, part goat, with a tail that ends in a snake’s head. Today, the term chimera is used in embryology to describe a hybrid organism that has tissues from multiple species. And there’s interest in producing chimeras for studying disease pathology, testing drugs, and eventually organ transplantation.
Last year, however, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said it wouldn’t support this research and banned funding for it, due to bioethical and animal welfare concerns. Now, the NIH is requesting public comment on a proposal to amend sections of their guidelines for human stem cell research on the proposed scope of certain human-animal chimera research.
Jon: Welcome to episode 170 of “The Digital Life” a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Hello Jon.
Jon: Hello Dirk. This week on the podcast we’ll discuss human animal chimeras and bioethics.
Dirk: What’s a chimera?
Jon: If you know your Greek mythology you might be familiar with this creature which is a monstrous fire breathing hybrid, which is part lion part goat and has a tail which which ends with the snake’s head. That’s the mythological beast. Today the term chimera is is used in embryology to describe a hybrid organism that has tissue from multiple species. There’s great interest in producing chimeras for studying disease pathology, testing out drugs, and hopefully eventually organ transplantation right, so growing human organs in animals and in some way.
Scientists have worked on this kind of research for years high in the hopes of being able to do just that, or you know, at the very least you know begin to understand how they might how they might go in that direction. However in November of 2015 that a National Institutes of Health decided that there were enough bioethical in animal welfare concerns about chimera research that they they put a ban on funding this type of research. Just now they’ve released a request for public comment around a a proposal to amend sections of their guidelines for human stem cell research around the proposed scope of human animal chimera research. We have until September 6th if you’re part of the public that wants to comment. You can go on the and NIH website up until September 6th and give your thoughts to that agency.
There there are so many aspects to this very promising technology that can make you feel uneasy if you’re not familiar with with the history of it. There’s there’s also a point worth making that for cardiac patients who have problems with the valves in their heart, we’re already implanting animal valves from bovine or porcine or, whatever the … equine is the one.
Dirk: I love your use of the -ines Jon.
Dirk: I’d be saying horses, cows, pigs-
Jon: Right, I was trying to get the terms right. I couldn’t remember them. There’s already the usage of certain parts of animal organs in humans which is the opposite route from what we’re talking about here. Additionally for folks with diabetes insulin is porcine derived, or it can be, so that’s another another area where we’re using animal product or part of an animal to help human life forward as context for that.
Dirk what what’s your impression of the NIH re-opening this research potentially to research scientists?
Dirk: It’s interesting. So much of the things we talk about are interesting, but chimeras are for me particularly interesting and scary. It’s really like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch piece of artwork. We’re really bringing the nightmares to life. Maybe the problems is our framing, that we shouldn’t view them as nightmares, but this is happening. We’re not that far from potentially, theoretically based on what we know of the science of how we can manipulate various types of organic matter and genome from having a theoretical ape with a human face or a pig with human feet or something.
Dirk: These specific examples may or may not be possible, but they are emblematic of things that are possible in terms of combining the human form with with the animal. From the NIH’s perspective the concerns are more ethical. My understanding is that it is less about the the hand and the foot and more about the mind and soul so to speak. If we are imbuing into these animals human consciousness, the ability to think like a person, to have self awareness in ways that we would understand us human that that’s something to be avoided. I think the NIH closed things down in order to avoid those types of situations, and now is opening things up in a careful with scare quotes way – meaning that’s I think their perspective more so than my own although I may share it, I’m not sure yet – but opening it up in ways that are more controlled and careful an that don’t allow scenarios that could result in that human consciousness and awareness and what we might call life scientifically manifest in different animals.
Jon: Yeah, it’s interesting to see where these bioethical and ethical boundaries are being drawn, especially around a state of consciousness that is being a … call it either sacred or a position of human importance that’s a barrier that we don’t necessarily want to cross. I find that interesting and I also find that the general procedures for getting commentary and being slow to embark on this research I think is generally speaking the right way to approach this technology especially the public commentary I think is critical.
I think that science and research science in particular needs to engage more with the public and public discussion just because there is so much technology right now that is potentially scary and potentially very helpful to the human condition, but in order to bring people along or at least to set the boundaries in ways that are beneficial for both research science and the general public in the long term I think the process that the NIH is embarking on is correct and probably needs to be replicated more often when it comes to these kinds of discussions.
Dirk: I don’t know if it’s correct. It may be. I certainly see from a traditional humanistic perspective it’s seeming correct. In China the ethics are much more grey or even black and we have to assume that secretly China’s years ahead of exploring these things. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if there were secret pictures leaked that showed bizarre freakazoid half animal, half human things in Chinese laboratories. It wouldn’t surprise me at all. That doesn’t mean it’s happening today, but I don’t think that there are the … I don’t think that the same considerations are are happening in a certain way in that country, in that power in terms of scientific ethical checks and balances that we’re doing with the NIH.
In the short term it’s very easy to say what the NIH is doing is correct and it’s the safe way to proceed, but who knows how the future will look back on that if China gets way ahead and does some wacky unpredictable things. Things that we literally can’t protect because the possibilities of what could come out of these sciences and technologies are so beyond the pale of what we might imagine in our limited little world today. History might frown on the NIH’s conservativism and being being careful.
Look, nuclear weapons, that research was an example of the United States having cowboy unfettered ethical … just jumping into this technology that is frankly a horrifying technology. You could argue that it’s on the back of that technology that the the late twentieth century U.S. as one of the dual superpowers of the world along with the Soviet Union was built. Are there things in the gray … I’ll use grey instead of black. I’ll be a little more … I’ll grant a little bit more grace to China but in the grey ethical scientific community or sub communities or sub sub communities within China are things happening now that will radically change the balance of power, the very structure and framing of the world in the decades and centuries ahead; wery well could be.
I’m kind of sprouting beyond just chimeras at this point but chimeras are a good test case because they’re so freaky, at least to me. I don’t know if it is to you as well but the idea of … even though it wouldn’t surprise me to see it, the idea of actually seeing a picture of some bizarre hybrid like that, it’s scary, it’s weird, it’s really unsettling actually.
It’s, I was going to say for a long time, I don’t know how many years, but for certainly a number of years now there’s been the notion of, we’re gonna get to the point where we’re going to harvest organs, and so there’s this abstract idea of this tray with a lot of ears growing on it. That’s weird enough in a certain way. I can certainly get there, but it’s bizarre. Once you’re talking about living creatures that are hybridizing with humanity, it’s fascinating but for me very scary stuff.
Jon: Yeah, I think the the word itself has a certain framing to it that presents that option without necessarily completely describing the research science. Whether that’s an unfortunate term or not remains to be seen.
Certainly, this research science is decades old and the potential for gene editing techniques like CRISPR which has exploded into the popular consciousness over the past 6 to 9 months, that I think might have been the impetus for the NIH to at least open up these comments again just because it’s now so much easier or potentially so much easier to do if you can make these kinds of gene edits in conjunction with the stem cell techniques that they were already exploring.
To get back to my original thought around the term itself which is a term for a monster, it’s definitely coloring our thoughts and our discussion a bit. I don’t know where I fall on the spectrum of rejection or acceptance of this technology but I find the … For me personally the thought of public discussion is a good thing because I want to hear what better informed people think as we’re mapping out these ethical guidelines. I generally think that this kind of public discussion is required for a whole host of technologies. Some of these discussions we’re having and some we’re not.
Dirk: I’m glad there’s not public discourse on a lot of this stuff to be honest. It’s because I think the religious right would come in and muck things up. If we start to get the religious right in the middle of science they’re gonna shut down a lot of stuff that is far more benign than chimeras. I’m happy to not have a discourse that is inclusive of people who I think are driven by ignorant and outdated world views that aren’t in step with where the world is is going now.
It must be a great time to be a philosopher. In the 1990’s when I was in university I took a lot of philosophy classes and it was almost all theoretical at that point. like. When you were talking about practical and applied philosophy, most of it was in the realm of medical ethics and stuff. It was really narrow.
Now, as science and technology, engineering, business are thrusting us into these applied real world complicated situations that take what used to be these lofty theoretical things and make them concrete and real and applied, and things that we’re not figuring out proactively ahead of time to get to a smart place but trying to reactively scramble to in real time. Probably often behind … the commercialization is dragging the ethicists and philosophers behind which probably isn’t super smart but the problem again is you have nation states like China, Russia that are going to dive into the grey ethical areas with both feet and it sucks us all along for the ride.
Jon: Yeah, I think your your examples there … I do think China has some pretty powerful research science, especially in the area of genomics, and is a very strong competitor with the United States in that area. Russia in contrast, from what I understand, just because early on genomics science was completely rejected as being a bourgeois conceit basically. I don’t think Russia has those capabilities yet, but I think the point is well taken that there are areas of this world where research science is unfettered in comparison to the United States for sure.
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Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter at Dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening. So that’s it for episode 170 of “The Digital Life”. For Dirk Knemeyer I’m Jon Follett, and I’ll see you next time.