Animal-human hybrid clones

Techsploitation

I just love saying that scientists are creating “human-animal hybrid clones” because that single phrase pulls together about 15 nightmares from science fiction and religion all at the same time. Although if you think about it, one fear really should cancel out the other one. I mean, if you’re worried about human cloning, then the fact that these are clones created by sticking human DNA inside cow eggs should be comforting. I mean, it’s not really a human anymore at that point, right?

But the real reason I’m gloating over this piece of completely ordinary biological weirdness is that last week the British Parliament began the process of legalizing human-animal hybrid embryo cloning. While not explicitly illegal in the United States, the process has been so criticized (including by former president Bill Clinton) that most researchers have stayed away from it. Now, however, this law could make it easy for Brits to advance their medicine far faster than people in the supposedly high-tech and super-advanced United States.

You see, these scary hybrids could become stem cell goldmines. One of the barriers to getting stem cells for research is that they only come from human embryos, and human embryos come from human women. Some of us may be cool with donating our eggs to science, but a lot of us aren’t – and that means scientists don’t have a lot of material to work with if they want to do stem cell research that could do things like reverse organ failure and cure Alzheimer’s.

And that’s where these human-animal hybrids come in. We can already inject DNA into the nucleus of a cow egg and zap it with electricity, thus reprogramming that egg to be human. And we can even get that egg to start dividing as if it were an embryo, creating a bunch of human stem cells. Beyond that, we just aren’t sure. Will these embryos create viable stem cells to treat all those nasty human diseases? Or will they just be duds that act too much like cow cells to be usable by humans? If there’s even a small chance that the former will come to pass, it’s worth investigating – and we’ll have solved the human stem cell shortage problem.

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Columnist Annalee Newitz 

That’s why scientists in the United Kingdom are doing it, and why their government is debating exactly how the process should be regulated. You wouldn’t necessarily know that from the way it’s been covered in the media, where even the normally staid International Herald Tribune began an article about the potential UK law with this sentence: “The British Parliament has voted to allow the creation of human-animal embryos, which some scientists say are vital to find cures for diseases but which critics argue pervert the course of nature.” Nice move, throwing in the word “pervert” there.

When the media writes about how scientists might “pervert the course of nature,” and the anti-science group Human Genetics Alert is bombarding me and pretty much every other science journalist on the planet with crazed, uniformed screeds about how this law will lead to “designer babies,” you start to feel like a huge portion of the population doesn’t know the difference between science and science fiction. Indeed, one of the most anticipated sci-fi horror movies for next year is Splice, which is about a pair of rock star geneticists who create a human-animal hybrid. Of course the hybrid happens to be a deadly, exotic-looking woman with wings and a tail and a super-hot body. Early images released from the production show her naked, with her animal parts looking sexy and dangerous.

The completely impossible “designer baby” in Splice is what most people think will happen when scientists create human-animal hybrid clones. But creating something like the sexy Splice lady is not only beyond the reach of current science, it is also illegal under the proposed UK law. The hybrid clones will only be permitted to develop for about two weeks, which is the time required to create stem cells. After that, they must be destroyed. So the UK law actually makes the nightmare scenario impossible, not possible.

And that’s why I’m psyched about getting my human-animal hybrid clones.

About the author Annalee Newitz (annalee at techsploitation dot com) is a surly media nerd who can’t wait to see the world populated with human-elephant-dolphin hybrids.

Comments

Marcy Darnovsky's picture

Annalee Newitz accurately notes that it’s against UK law to let human-animal hybrid embryos develop past 14 days. In fact, the UK – along with some 40 other countries, including nearly all that have a biotech sector – prohibit any kind of effort to modify the genes of future children and generations. But here in the US we haven’t managed to put such a policy in place. That’s one reason we should be alert to technical and political developments that could encourage “designer babies” and a GATTACA-style future.

Public-interest organizations including the UK’s Human Genetics Alert (which, contra Newitz’s characterization, is run by a politically progressive PhD geneticist) and the Center for Genetics and Society (where I work) recently criticized Cornell University researchers who created a genetically modified human embryo – the first ever – without any public discussion or consultation. In doing so, they crossed an ethical boundary that until now has been honored by scientists around the world. (Details in my “Crossing an Ethical Boundary” at http://www.geneticsandsociety.org/article.php?id=4087 )

Nobody thinks we’re going to see winged human beings tomorrow or the day after. But we’ve already got online auctions for cloned pets, genetically re-engineered mammals in labs around the world, a “wild West” policy vacuum on human biotech in the US, and a small but disturbing number of techno-enthusiasts who openly advocate a “designer baby” future.

Newitz describes herself as both “gloating” and “surly” in response to the news from the UK. Literary license and tongues in cheeks notwithstanding, are either of these helpful starting points for charting our biopolitical future?