British scientists will be allowed to research diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s using human-animal hybrid embryos, after the House of Commons rejected a ban recently. Advocates of human-animal embryo research say that scientists need every available means possible to research devastating diseases. Critics, on the other hand, say that scientists are promoting a frightening and irreversible future.
The main kinds of mixed embryo permitted by the Bill are “cytoplasmic hybrids” or “cybrids”, which are made by moving a human nucleus into an empty animal egg. These are genetically 99.9 per cent human. It allows true hybrids, chimeras that combine human and animal cells, and transgenic human embryos that include animal DNA.
Edward Leigh, British Member of Parliament for Gainsborough, who supported the amendment to ban all human-animal embryos, said that mingling animal and human DNA crossed an “ultimate boundary”. He says exaggerated claims give patients false hope while the dangers of the research are not being considered.
“In many ways we are like children playing with landmines without any concept of the dangers of the technology we are handling,” Leigh said.
At this point, it is legal to culture admixed embryos up to 14 days, but illegal to transfer them to a human or animal womb. But many scientists around the globe want permission to keep embryos alive longer, perhaps even to full term through implantation. Cornell scientists Nikica Zaninovic, who helped create the worlds first genetically modified human embryo says that in order to be sure that a new gene had been inserted and the embryo had been genetically modified, scientists would ideally want to keep growing the embryo and carry out further tests.
But ethicists worry that by approving human-animal embryos, lawmakers are opening the door to a future of “enhanced” or “mutant” humans that have animal traits. It is even thought possible to so drastically alter human genomes that a type of superhuman species could emerge.
In theory, the bio-fusion options are limitless. Any gene that exists in another species could be brought over to a human cell. Imagine some of the incredible traits of the animal kingdom that some humans don’t possess such as night vision, amazing agility, or the ability to breath underwater. The precedence for these types of radical changes is already in place. Experimental mice, for example, were successfully given the human ability to see in color. If animals can be engineered to have human traits, then humans can certainly be mutated to have “desirable” animal traits.
The fear with germline engineering is that since it is inheritable, offspring and all succeeding generations would carry the modified traits. This is one reason why this type of engineering is currently banned- it could lead to irreversible alteration of the entire human species!
Ethics, not scientific limitations, is the real brick wall at this point. Most scientists believe manipulating genes in order to make an individual healthy is a noble and worthwhile pursuit. But some are against even that notion, arguing that historically amazing individuals have sometimes been plagued by genetic mental and physical disorders, which inadvertently shaped the greatness of their lives. Should we rob the human race of character shaping frailty? Very few scientists would dare to publicly endorse the idea of using genetic engineering to make a normal, healthy individuals somehow superior to the rest of the human race.
Athletes, on the other hand, might feel differently. In theory, the single most effective way to radically alter your physical capacities is to manipulate your genes. Authorities are already worried that “genetic doping” will become widespread in the world of athletic competition. Now that we’ve mapped out the human genome and identified exactly which genes make you buff, tough and rough—experts say it’s only a matter of time.
Gene doping could spawn athletes capable of out-running, out-jumping and out-cycling even the world’s greatest champions. However, researchers are attempting to prevent that from happening by detecting the first cases of gene doping in professional athletes before the practice becomes mainstream.
“WADA has had a research program in place for some years now, to try to develop tests for gene-based doping,” said Theodore Friedmann, M.D., head of the agency’s panel on genetic doping and director of the gene therapy program at the University of California, San Diego.
But if the past history of traditional steroid doping is any indication of the future, some people—including athletes, doctors, and scientists—will likely break the rules.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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