EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Dr Strangeloves' Brave New World
, December 18, 2004
Christmas, the season of joy in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, offers an occasion on which to consider what it is to be truly human.
Next year, Federal Parliament will review legislation enacted in 2002 which permits human-embryo experimentation, under strictly controlled conditions, and forbids the cloning of human beings.
Interestingly, despite the "hype" from some medical researchers, in the years since Australian legislation was enacted, no therapies have been developed from human embryonic stem-cells, while over 50 different therapies have been developed using adult or placental stem-cells, which present no ethical problems.
Since Australia's legislation was enacted, developments in biotechnology have opened new doors which will also have to be subject to legislation, including the production of human-animal hybrids or chimeras, once the preserve of mythology and science fiction, but now technically possible.
In fact, the "brave new world" of biotechnology - unrestrained by either law or ethics - has embarked on a series of experiments which potentially threaten our understanding of what it is to be human.Human-animal hybrids
For example, as a by-product of human-embryo experimentation, in the United States, pigs, sheep and mice have all been produced whose cellular composition contains human genetic material.
Proponents of these experiments deny that that they are doing anything new: they argue that there is no difference between using cells derived from animals in vaccines for diseases such as polio, and using human embryonic stem-cells. Or they argue that in principle, there is no difference between using cells or organs taken from animals (such as pigs) to replace diseased human organs.
In fact, there are fundamental differences. One obvious point is that human embryos are destroyed in the process of acquiring human embryonic stem-cells, so the process involves human embryo destruction.
Separately, the merging of human and animal cells, in the early stages of life, involves the production of animals which have human characteristics because they contain both human and animal genetic material.
Already, scientists have commenced this process, as was documented in a recent article in the Washington Post
In one ongoing set of experiments, Jeffrey L. Platt at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, gave human characteristics to pigs by adding human-blood-forming stem-cells to pig foetuses. The resulting pigs have both pig and human blood in their vessels. And it's not just pig blood cells being swept along with human blood cells; some of the cells themselves have merged, creating hybrids.
Other experiments, led by Esmail Zanjani, chairman of animal biotechnology at the University of Nevada at Reno, have produced sheep whose livers are up to 80 per cent human.
Perhaps the most ambitious efforts have come from Irving Weissman, director of Stanford University's Institute of Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine. Weissman helped make the first mouse with a nearly complete human immune system - an animal that has been used for tests of new drugs against the AIDS virus, which does not infect conventional mice. More recently, his team injected human neural stem-cells into mouse foetuses, creating mice whose brains are about one per cent human, for medical research. Now Weissman says he is thinking about making mice whose brains are 100 percent human.
Appalling as these experiments are, there are bioethicists and medical scientists who support them.
"Chimeras [i.e. animal-human hybrids] are not as strange and alien as at first blush they seem," said Henry Greely, a law professor and ethicist at Stanford University who has reviewed proposals to create human-mouse chimeras there.
And Robert Streiffer, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, saw merit in a human-chimpanzee chimera endowed with speech and an enhanced potential to learn - what some have called a "humanzee."
"There's a knee-jerk reaction that enhancing the moral status of an animal is bad," Streiffer said. "But if you did it, and you gave it the protections it deserves, how could the animal complain?"
Most chilling of all was the comment by Dr Ann McLaren, a leading British research scientist, in discussing the possibility that a human embryo might form, trapped in a mouse.
"What would be so dreadful?" she said, as no human embryo could develop successfully in a mouse womb. It would simply die, she told the US National Academy of Sciences.
In the end, the only restraint on the utilitarianism of the medical experimenters will come through legislative action in democratic nations.
The challenge in 2005 is to persuade legislators to insist that an ethical legal framework be established to control the process. Unless this is done, it will lead to humans being treated like animals, and all in the name of science.
- Peter Westmore is president of the National Civic Council.