A scene from the 1977 film of The Island of Doctor Moreau
If there is anything in bioethics which provokes a universal “Yuck”, it is chimeras, life forms which are partly human and partly animal. The late 19th Century sci fi writer H.G. Wells was probably the first to foresee that modern scientists would be interested in chimeras. His novel The Island of Doctor Moreau features hybrid beings which the mad Doctor created by surgically combining wolves, monkeys, pigs, hyaenas, panthers, and other animals with human beings.
Fast-forwarding 100 years, stem cell researchers have revived the idea of creating chimeras at the cellular level. They have argued that carefully controlled chimeras with a small percentage of human cells would be useful for drug testing, organ transplants and investigation of human development.
After a long debate and the imposition of clear and narrow guidelines, this was permitted in the United Kingdom by the fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, in 2008.
In June this year, a Japanese scientist won approval for experiments in which he will place human cells in mouse and rat embryos and then transplant the embryos into surrogate animals. His goal is to see whether he can grow fully human organs inside the mice and rats.
Whatever the merits of this experiment – and it raises big practical and bioethical questions and is very yucky – it was approved by the Japanese government after a lengthy study of the controversial issue. The researcher, Hiromitsu Nakauchi, was very impatient with the slow progress of the approval, but he respected the process.
However, a rival team of Spanish and American scientists working on chimeras have not respected the process. Instead of waiting for government approval, they exported their research to China – a bioethical Wild West where almost anything goes.
It’s a stunning example of evading ethical controversy. Scientists call it “ethics dumping” — the scientific counterpart of exporting American garbage to China.
Here is what happened. Juan Carlos Izpisúa, a world-class stem cell researcher from Barcelona, moved to The Salk Institute, in California, in 2014 because he was frustrated by lack of funding from the Spanish and Catalan governments.
In his new base, he has developed a method for integrating human stem cells into animal embryos in conjunction with Murcia Catholic University (UCAM). This could result in growing replacement organs for humans.
“From UCAM and the Salk Institute we are now trying not only to move forward and continue experimenting with human cells and rodent and pig cells, but also with non-human primates,” Izpisúa told the Spanish newspaper El Pais. “Our country is a pioneer and a world leader in these investigations.”
Up until now, scientists have generally destroyed human embryos before they reach 14 days. Izpisúa’s team will destroy them later, after they develop a central nervous system, although they don’t plan to bring them to term. But neither in the US nor in Spain is research like this unproblematic. It is not permitted or it is not funded.
And for very good reasons.
The experiment is ethically risky. What if the human stem cells develop in the monkey brain and become conscious? What if they become sperm or egg cells and make possible the birth of being which is half-rat, half-human? Although the researchers brush off these fears, they are legitimate and widely-shared.
So that’s why the experiments were conducted in China, a country where human dignity and human rights are routinely flouted.
“We are doing the experiments with monkeys in China because, in principle, they cannot be done here,” Estrella Núñez, of UCAM, told El Pais. “What we want is to make progress for the sake of people who have a disease”.
No details of the experiment have been released.
Robin Lovell-Badge, a leading British stem cell scientist, told The Guardian: “In the UK, any proposal to make human-monkey chimeras would have to be very well justified, and it would have to get through a very tough review process. I am sure that any proposal to go straight to live born chimeras would not get approval in the UK.”
Letitia Meynell, of Dalhousie University, told Gizmodo that it was “really depressing to see the willingness of scientists to engage in research tourism when the ethical standards of their home country make it impossible to conduct that research there … scientists who are willing to flout the ethics of their home countries and institutions should see themselves as obligated to make the ethical case for what they are doing.”
The way Izpisúa and his colleagues have handled the controversial issue of chimeras is cowardly, unethical and undemocratic. If they believe that their work is consistent with democratic values, the yuck factor notwithstanding, they ought to demonstrate it to their colleagues and to legislators. Instead, they are giving ethical standards in their own countries a one-finger salute in their pursuit of scientific glory.
Ethics dumping borders on criminal negligence. It is a sophisticated exploitation of poorer countries with lax regulations by richer countries with strict regulations. Drug companies have sometimes tested products in the Third-World to short-circuit the approval process. if there are accidents or abuses, no one is likely find out back home. Neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero was unable to practise his bizarre head transplants in Italy so he took his work to China. China “is quite different from the West”, he says, and “has a different ethics”.
What’s even more alarming about Izpisúa’s Chinese venture is that almost no scientists have condemned it. Why not? Probably because they support his yucky chimeras and resent the imposition of government limits on their own research. Once again, it confirms that for many scientists their first loyalty is to unfettered research and not to democratic values.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet