In last week’s blog (July 26), I highlighted an article from Wired magazine (August 2011) titled “Extreme Science” in which Wired explores seven “shocking experiments” that scientists could learn from if they were willing to set aside their ethical concerns. One experiment involves cross-breeding humans with chimpanzees in order to better understand human development.
What I find fascinating about all of this is that the Wired article was written as if unethical experiments don’t occur; as if, in reality, scientists are guided by a moral compass. But are they? Just 2 days before I wrote my blog, The Daily Mail (a British publication) reported that over a 3-year span scientists “have created more than 150 human-animal hybrid embryos in British laboratories.” So, what Wired posed as a hypothetical thought experiment was already happening (albeit secretly) in the UK.
According to The Daily Mail, “155 ‘admixed’ embryos, containing both human and animal genetic material, have been created since the introduction of the 2008 Human Fertilization Embryology Act. This legalized the creation of a variety of hybrids, including an animal egg fertilized by a human sperm; ‘cybrids’, in which a human nucleus is implanted into an animal cell; and ‘chimeras’, in which human cells are mixed with animal embryos.” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2017818/Embryos-involving-genes-animals-mixed-humans-produced-secretively-past-years.html
The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 2008, Section 4A, contains some of the following prohibitions:
“(1) No person shall place in a woman –
(a) a human admixed embryo,
(b) any other embryo that is not a human embryo, or
(c) any gametes other than human gametes.
(2) No person shall –
(a) mix human gametes with animal gametes,
(b) bring about the creation of a human admixed embryo, or
(c) keep or use a human admixed embryo…”
So far, so good. Or so I thought. The Act continues: It is illegal to do #2 above (i.e., mix human gametes) “except in pursuance of a license.”
In other words, it is still possible, with government authorization, to mix human gametes with animal gametes to create an admixed embryo. The only restriction, according to the Act, is that the admixed embryo cannot be kept or used after the first 14 days of its existence. Indeed, it is also possible, according to the wording of the Act, to create an admixed embryo, store it (i.e., freeze it) over a period of time, and then at some future point do research on it, as long as it is not allowed to live beyond 14 days.
(To view The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 2008, go to: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2008/22/contents)
But the story’s intrigue deepens. The creation of the cybrids” in the UK was apparently done in secret. As noted in a recent Christian Medical Fellowship blog (July 26): “there seems to be a murky mix of confusion and secrecy from which the true facts and figures are difficult to extract.” But why the secrecy if research was being done within the guidelines of The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act?
Furthermore, the research was not carefully documented. It is less than clear the exact numbers of cybrids that were created. The Christian Medical Fellowship reports that, “According to The Independent “many more cybrid embryos were created – 278. That large number is naturally of concern, but also of concern is that the numbers don’t match the figure of 155 released last week. The Government has avoided answering that question. Moreover, if all funding (apparently) stopped in 2010 and the licence was revoked from the only researcher, when were these 155 (or 278) embryos created? Were they all created before 2010? Or are they still being created? If so, by whom?” http://www.cmfblog.org.uk/2011/07/26/155-animal-human-embryos-created-in-the-uk-%E2%80%93-we-think/?doing_wp_cron
In other words, in spite of government oversight, an assortment of so-called “ethical guidelines,” and the best intentions of scientists, it’s less than obvious that research is done within any firm restrictions. The CMF concludes that “the glaring discrepancies in the figures issued by The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority shows it is not fit for purpose when it comes to regulating the scientists. It is incapable of keeping accurate records and is unable to keep on top of what is going on in research, either with embryos or eggs.”
I ended last week’s blog with the following observation: “Humans have also demonstrated a natural tendency to push the moral envelope, to give priority to what can be done over what should be done. Time will tell whether experiments that are now considered unethical will one day be the norm.” Apparently we no longer need to wait for “time” to make this announcement.