Posts Tagged ‘Stem Cells’

Japanese Scientist Obtains Permission for Animal-Human Hybrids

August 1, 2019

This is very ominous. A Japanese scientist has been granted permission to create animal-human hybrids, according to yesterday’s I. The man intends to use them in research for the possible creation of organs in animals, that could be used for transplantation into humans. There are limits to his research, however. He states that at the moment he will not keep them alive for longer than 15 and a half days, so it isn’t like he’s going to produce complete animal-human hybrids, like the chimpanzee-human creature developed by rogue scientists as a new slave animal in the 1990s ITV SF thriller, Chimera. But it is a step in that direction.

The article, ‘Human-animal hybrid research is approved’, by Colin Drury, on page 22, runs

Human-animal hybrids are to be developed in embryo form in Japan after the government approved controversial stem-cell research.

Human cells will be grown in rat and mouse embryos, then brought to term in a surrogate animal, as part of experiments to be carried out at the University of Tokyo.

Supporters say the work – led by the renowned geneticist Hiromitsu Nakauchi – could be a vital first step towards eventually growing organs that can then be transplanted into people in need.

But opponents have raised concerns that scientists are playing God. Critics worry the human cells could stray beyond the targeted organs into other areas of the animal, creating a creature that is part animal, part person.

For that reason, such prolonged experimentation has been banned or not been financed across the world in recent years.

In Japan, scientists were forbidden from going beyond a 14-day growth period. But those laws were relaxed in March when the country’s education and science ministry issued new guidelines saying such creations could now be brought to term.

Now, Dr. Nakauchi’s application to experiment is the first to be approved under that new framework.

Human-animal hybrid embryos have been made in countries such as the United States, but were never brought to term. The US National Institutes of Health has had a moratorium on funding such work since 2015.

“We don’t expect to create human organs immediately, but this allows us to advance our research based upon the know-how we have gained up to this point,” Dr. Nakauchi told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

He added that he planned to proceed slowly, and will not attempt to bring any hybrid embryos to term for several years, rather growing the hybrid mouse embhryos to 14.5 days, when the animal’s organs are mostly formed, and the hybrid rat embryo’s to 15.5 days.

Such caution was welcomed by bioethicists in the country.

There was also a little capsule, containing the comment that

Some bioethicists are concerned about the possibility that human cells might stray, travelling to the developing animal’s brain and potentially altering its cognition.

Which seems to be a concern that this research could unintentionally also result in animals acquiring some form of human intelligence accidentally.

The British philosopher Mary Midgley attacked that part of the biotech industry and those scientists, who looked forward to bioengineers being able to redesign whole new forms of humans in her book, The Myths We Live By (London: Routledge 2004). She writes

That ideology is what really disturbs me, and I think it is what disturbs the public. This proposed new way of looking at nature is not scientific. It is not something that biology has shown to be necessary. Far from that, it is scientifically muddled. It rests on bad genetics and dubious evolutionary biology. Though it uses science, it is not itself a piece of science but a powerful myth expressing a determination to put ourselves  in a relation of control to the non-human world around us, to be in the driving seat at all costs rather than attending to that world and trying to understand how it works. It is a myth that repeats, in a grotesquely simple sense, Marx’s rather rash suggestion that the important thing is not to understand the world, but to change it. Its imagery is a Brocken spectre, a huge shadow projected on to a cloudy background by the shape of a few recent technological achievements.

The debate then is not between Feeling, in the blue corner, objecting to the new developments, and Reason in the red corner, defending them. Rhetoric such as that of Stock and Sinsheimer and Eisner is not addressed to Reason. It is itself an exuberant power fantasy, very much like the songs sung in the 1950s during the brief period of belief in an atomic free lunch, and also like those in the early days of artificial intelligence. The euphoria is the same. It is, of course, also motivated by the same hope of attracting grant money, just as the earlier alchemists needed to persuade powerful persons tthat they were going to produce real, coinable gold. (p. 166).

She goes on to argue that such scientific hubris comes from the gradual advance of atheism with the victory of the mechanistic model of the universe introduced by Newton in the 17th century. As God receded, scientists have stepped in to take His place.

On the clockwork model the world thus became amazingly intelligible. God, however, gradually withdrew from the scene, leaving a rather unsettling imaginative vacuum. The imagery of machinery survived. But where there is no designer the whole idea of mechanism begins to grow incoherent. Natural Selection is supposed to fill the gap, but it is a thin idea, not very satisfying to the imagination.

That is how the gap that hopeful biotechnicians now elect themselves to fill arose. They see that mechanistic thinking calls for a designer, and they feel well qualified to volunteer for that vacant position. Their confidence about this stands out clearly from the words I have emphasised in Sinsheimer’s proposal that ‘the horizons of the new eugenics are in principle boundless – for we should have the potential to create new genes and new qualities yet undreamed of … For the first time in all time a living creature understands its origin and can undertake to design its future.’

Which living creature? It cannot be human beings in general, they wouldn’t know how to do it. It has to be the elite, the biotechnologists who are the only people able to make these changes. So it emerges that members of the public who complain that biotechnological projects involve playing God have in fact understood this claim correctly. That phrase, which defenders of the projects dismiss as mere mumbo jumbo, is actually a quite exact term for the sort of claim to omniscience and omnipotence on these matters that is being put forward.

One of the most profound artistic comments I have found about the implications of this new biotechnology is the sculpture ‘The Young Family’ by the Australian artist Patricia Piccinini. This shows a hybrid mother creature, bred for organ transplantation, surrounded by her young. Curled up like an animal, her human eyes peer back plaintively at the spectator. It’s a deeply disturbing work, although Piccinini states she is not opposed but optimistic about scientific progress. She says

In terms of the real world, these are some of the key issues that I am trying to question and discuss with my work. I’m not pessimistic about developments in biotechnology. We are living in a great time with a lot of opportunities, but opportunities don’t always turn out for the best. I just think we should discuss the full implications of these opportunities.

So if we look at The Young Family we see a mother creature with her babies. Her facial expression is very thoughtful. I imagine this creature to be bred for organ transplants. At the moment we are trying to do such a thing with pigs, so I gave her some pig-like features. That is the purpose humanity has chosen for her. Yet she has children of her own that she nurtures and loves. That is a side-effect beyond our control, as there will always be.

That is what makes the question of breeding animals purely for organ-transfer so difficult to answer. On one hand we need organs to help people in need, on the other hand we are looking at an animal that wants to exist for the sake of itself. I can’t help but feel an enormous empathy for this creature. And, to be very honest, if it would save the life of one of my children, I would be will to take one of these organs. I know it is probably not ethically right but sometimes honesty, emotions, empathy and ethics don’t always line up.

I am not nearly so optimistic. For me, this sculpture is a deeply moving, deeply disturbing comment on the direction this new technology can go. And I fear tht this latest advance is taking us there.

Stem Cells and Pseudoscience

May 24, 2009

One of the major ethical controversies in science at the moment has been about the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. Stem cells have become immensely valuable because of their unique ability to be ‘reprogrammed’ and change into various other types of cell. These new cells may in turn, it is considered, be used to repair damaged or malfunctioning tissues and organs. Thus, supporters of stem cell research have argued that stem cells are immensely important as potential cures for a number of serious diseases. Much of the research has concentrated on stem cells taken from human embryos, which are believed to have the best potential for medical use as it has been argued that they have the greatest ability to change into the type of cells desired by researchers. This is ethically controversial, as opponents of embryonic stem cell research have objected to the use of such embryos for medical research on the grounds that they are nevertheless human, and so deserve and require the same respect and ethical treatment as fully formed people. Experiments on human embryos, it is argued, automatically imply that there are certain types of people on whom it is legitimate to experiment without their consent, and so constitutes a fundamental attack on human integrity. The debate about embryonic stem cell research is part of the wider controversy over abortion, and reflects the same concerns over the nature and value of human life and the ethical treatment of the unborn.

Many, if not the majority, of the opponents of embryonic stem cell research tend to be religious. However, while many of them are motivated by their religious concerns, this does not mean that opposition to their use is irrational or necessarily confined to those with strong, usually Judaeo-Christian beliefs. Many of the arguments advanced against their use are rational, philosophical moral arguments, based on the belief in transcendental moral values and the innate moral worth of human beings. It’s therefore possible for a secular individual to accept and support these arguments and oppose such research without believing in God like many of the other critics of this research.

Due to the suggested immense potential of stem cell research to provide cures for a wide range of truly horrific diseases and conditions, governments have increasingly been called upon to fund it, while the ethical problems raised by such experimentation have meant that they have also been required to create guidelines and regulations to ensure its moral conduct. Opponents of such research have objected to the use of public finances to support what they regard as a fundamentally immoral attack on human integrity and value. Supporters of stem cell research have, in their turn, strongly attacked opposition to it, viewing this as an attempt by religion to suppress scientific progress. In Britain, despite opposition from a number of clergy and laymen, premier Gordon Brown passed legislation permitting and regulating embryonic stem cell research, while issuing a statement declaring that he also fully understood those who opposed and appreciated their reasons for doing so. In America, George Bush’s administration passed legislation prohibiting the use of government funds for stem cell research, but did not outlaw private industry from engaging in it. Bush’s policy was widely attacked by supporters of stem cell research, and I’ve got a feeling that it has now been repealed by Barack Obama’s administration, which I believe has now allowed government financial support for it.

Just as the moral objections to embryonic stem cell research are not necessarily entirely religious in nature, so there are also scientific objections to stem cell research. It has, for example, been found to be possible to extract stem cells from the umbilical cord and placenta, and these cells are also able to be turned into various different cell types. Indeed, some scientists consider that these cells are far easier to manipulate and turn into the desired cells and tissues than embryonic stem cells, and so represent a far more promising field of research. The Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, in his discussion of embryonic stem cells research and the considerable moral and scientific objections to it, has stated that so far researchers have found 80 practical applications and uses for stem cells taken from the umbilical cord and placenta, as opposed to zero for embryonic stem cells. Despite this, it appears to be widely assumed that embryonic stem cells present better opportunities for research and cures. When the BBC covered the debate over stem cell research on its six O’clock news programme when it was being debated in parliament, criticism of their use was largely confined to the moral dimension, and featured a Roman Catholic figure stating the Church’s objections to it. It is possible, however, that this attitude, that objections to embryonic stem cell research are primarily religious, may change.

Last Monday,18th May 2009, the BBC’s current affairs and documentary programme, Panorama, covered the journey of one British family to China seeking a cure for a disease. The programme questioned the treatment offered to them by the doctors and scientists involved in such dubious treatment, and there was the suggestion that it was pseudoscience, rather than true science and reliable, ethical medical research. Now, I didn’t see the programme, and so really don’t know whether the stem cell research the programme was criticising was based on those from embryos, or from the placenta and umbilical cord, nor how, or indeed whether this was related to stem cell research by Western scientists. Nevertheless, it does suggest that journalists and the public are becoming more critical of some of the claims made for stem cell research. If the programme was about the spurious use of embryonic stem cells in cures and treatment that had no proper scientific basis, then it would seem that, at least in this instance, the supporters of embryonic stem cells research, far from defending science from attack by religion, have actually promoted pseudoscience against proper scientific research that may be performed without violating religious and ethical principles.