On Thursday (Aug 4, 2016) the US federal government announced that it would remove the moratorium on the funding to scientists creating animal-human embryos using stem cells.

The NIH (National Institutes of Health) is basically allowing scientists to perform experiments with stem cells, under very strict monitoring conditions, to create what are called chimeras (a single organism composed of cells from different zygotes), by transplanting embryonic cells from one organism into the embryo of another.

Earlier last year, the NIH imposed a ban on funding such projects, as they raised many ethical questions. One main concern was that these scientists could create animals with partly human brains, embuing them with some form of consciousness.  A truly Island of Dr. Moreau scenario.

[pullquote]One main concern was that these scientists would create animals with partly human brains, embuing them some form of consciousness.  A truly Island of Dr. Moreau scenario.[/pullquote]

On the flip side, the scientists have assured the NIH that most of these these embryos would never be allowed to develop to fruition (and those that were would still fall under strict scrutiny).  They have argued that not allowing this research would be a step backward in the search for new treatments to common diseases.  They hope to create animal models of human diseases, within self-contained environments that would allow them to rule out many extenuating genetic factors.  For example, one outcome could be the creation of pigs or sheep with human hearts, to be used for transplantation.

The lift on the ban comes with a number of restrictions.  One of these is the prohibiting of the use non-human primates, like chimps and monkeys in these experiments, because of their close evolutionary relationship to humans.  They have also imposed an extra layer of scrutiny to many experiments, including the creation of animals with human brain tissue.  While this might prove to be useful in the study of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, it also opens the door to the development of animals with proto-human brains.  Another stipulation is that none of these animals would have the ability to breed.

Carrie Wolinetz, the NIH’s associate director for science policy writes,

At the end of the day, we want to make sure this research progresses because its very important to our understanding of disease. It’s important to our mission to improve human health.  But we also want to make sure there’s an extra set of eyes on these projects because they do have this ethical set of concerns associated with them.

Scientists in this area of research are obviously thrilled that funding will now be allowed once again to flow into their labs.  The public has 30 days to comment on the proposed new policy. NIH could start funding projects as early as the start of 2017.

Top photo:  Pablo Ross of the University of California, Davis, inserts human stem cells into a pig embryo as part of experiments to create chimeric embryos.
Rob Stein/NPR

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