Original press release was issued by the NIH, written by Carrie Wolinetz.
What was once an ethical taboo, and a domain of numerous science-fiction writers might become a subject of serious scientific research. The talk is about chimeras, part-human, part-animal creatures that are known to lurk the pages of fantasy books and movie screens. But now that the federal government announced plans Thursday to lift a moratorium declared by National Institutes of Health (NIH) back in September, scientists just might be able to carry on doing the controversial experiments.
The chimera research involves using human stem cells to create animal embryos that are partly human. It appears the organization changed their mind and are debating under what circumstances such experiments could become “greenlit”. The NIH is proposing a new policy to permit scientists to use federal money to work with these embryos, however, under certain carefully monitored conditions. With lifting the ban on research, scientists hope to use the embryos to create animal models of human diseases, which could lead to new ways to prevent and treat illnesses. Considered are also experiments designed to create animals with human brain cells or human brain tissue, which could shed some more light on neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
“The formation of these types of human-animal organism, referred to as “chimeras,” holds tremendous potential for disease modeling, drug testing and perhaps eventual organ transplant.” argues Carrie D. Wolinetz, NIH’s Associate Director for Science Policy.
The NIH’s new policy aims to tackle the biggest ethical concerns, such as creating animals with some form of human consciousness or human thinking abilities, or developing animals with human sperm and eggs, that could potentially breed. In addition, the policy also imposes several restrictions such as prohibiting the introduction of certain types of human cells into embryos of nonhuman primates, such as monkeys and chimps, due to them being loosely related to humans.
To further prove the NIH truly has good intentions, they plan to go as far as to establish a special committee of government officials that would put some of the experiments through an extra layer of review.
The decision to lift the moratorium on funding chimera experiments has met both with a warm welcome on the side of several prominent scientists and denouncement on the side of critics. One of them is Stuart Newman, a biologist at New York Medical College who said that, “There have been speculations. But now they’re becoming more real. And I think that we just can’t say that since it’s possible then let’s do it.”
One way or another, the public has 30 days to comment on the proposed new policy. NIH could start funding projects as early as the start of 2017. Should the moratorium be truly lifted, the subsequent research could bring us some significant knowledge for treating illnesses. Let’s see whether, “the monstrous creature with lion head, goat body and a dragon tail” will become a reality or remain a myth.