Should Congress Ban Chimera Research?

If you haven’t yet heard about the movie Splice from WB pictures then it is a sign that you likely are spending too much time in the lab away from civilization. In the movie, Genetic Engineers who specialize in splicing together DNA from different animals create a animal-human hybrid that is strangely beautiful and intelligent but ends up becoming their worst nightmare.

There have been a ton of posts surrounding the launch of Splice. Anthony Kaufman of The Wall Street Journal wrote a post on the reality behind the movie splice where he gave honorable mention to the Venter Institute’s recently created synthetic microbe Mycoplasma mycoides.

ABC news is reporting that in the wake of the movie Splice, animal-human hybrids have been banned in some states.

Is this smart policy or simply a knee-jerk reaction by naĂŻve politicians? What are the ramifications of these policies?

Let’s consider that chimera research has huge potential for creating new therapeutics such as sheep with human livers and pancreas cells, mice with human immune systems and many other combinations of human and animal cells. According to the ABC report, different countries have taken divergent approaches to chimera research. The UK approved chimera research in 2008, Canada has banned it altogether and the Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act of 2009 failed to pass the U.S. Congress.

Since we have been discussing diabetes this week, I thought that I’d do some exploration into the extent of chimera tools in diabetes research. There are several papers highlighting the success of inter-species research in the development of human therapeutics . One study involves xenotransplantation of porcine islets of Langerhans into a type 1 diabetic woman. The transplant helped alleviate her metabolic complications and insulin requirements as shown in a 3-year post transplantation follow up study.

Some scientists are concerned that xenotransplantation may lead to transmission of infectious diseases from animals to humans (otherwise known as zoonosis…which kind or reminds me of the “pigman” episode in Seinfeld). While this certainly poses a concern, a recent study at Mexico University National Autonomous shows no evidence of porcine endogenous retrovirus in patients with type 1 diabetes after long-term porcine islet xenotransplantation.

While the above studies focused on xenotransplantation and not animal-human hybrids per se, xenotransplantation usually relies on somatic cell cloning and genetic engineering which involves the cloning of human genetic material into animal models. Furthermore, the creation of animals that express the human form of diabetes is necessary for studying mechanisms of disease that could otherwise not have been studied without a “humanized” animal model. One such study demonstrated that transgenic-cloned pigs with typical symptom of diabetes can be successfully produced by inducing a dominant-negative mutant using a human mutant gene. In this study out of Japan, transgenic-cloned pigs carrying a mutant human hepatocyte nuclear factor 1 gene were produced using a combined technology of intracytoplasmic sperm injection-mediated gene transfer and somatic cell nuclear transfer. Others, such as Elagin et. al. have found that the expression of certain human autoantigens in transgenic mice are necessary for studying molecular mechanisms of disease and developing antigen-specific immune-interventions.

In any event, we see that the movement of genetic material between species (as has been done for decades) is necessary for research into the mechanisms of human disease and is useful for the development of various therapeutics.

The current bill (bill 243) which passed in the Ohio Senate prohibits “the creation, transportation, or receipt of a human-animal hybrid, the transfer of a nonhuman embryo into a human womb, and the transfer of a human embryo into a nonhuman womb.” While this issue was discussed as far back as 2005 (see Animal-Human Hybrids Spark Controversy in National Geographic) we are now seeing the benefits of such research and it would be a shame to stymie its progress.

Many readers of this blog are on the front lines of genetic engineering. What do you think about the recent bill passed in the Ohio Senate? Are these laws going to impact on your current research projects?

Perhaps legislators have simply been watching too many Zemezyz videos?

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply