Ban On Federal Funding For Part-Animal, Part-Human ‘Frankenstein’ Chimera Embryos To Be Lifted By U.S. Government

The National Institutes of Health revealed that a new policy will lift a ban on controversial research involving embryos that are part-animal and part-human. The “Frankenstein” embryos are called chimeras and are created by injecting human stem cells into animal embryos to make them “partly human.” The embryo is then put into the womb of a female animal to grow. Chimera research has long been ethically controversial but the latest policy by the NIH indicates that it will be allowed in limited circumstances and that scientists studying chimera embryos can receive federal funding.

The Daily Mail reports that the United States government is slated to lift a ban on the federal funding of controversial chimera research. The moratorium began after concerns over the ethics of creating animal-human hybrids. The medical dictionary defines a chimera as an organism whose body contains different cell populations derived from different zygotes of the same or different species. Researchers have long used chimeras in medical research by, for example, growing human tumors in mice for study purposes. However, scientists believe that the possibilities for chimera research could go even further by eventually making it possible to “grow” transplant-ready organs.

Though the researchers believe there is great potential in chimera research, it does not come without ethical and animal welfare concerns. Carrie D. Wolinetz, Ph.D., associate director for Science Policy, NIH, says that the concerns stem from the fact that we simply do not know what effects the human cells may have on the chimeric animal.

“With recent advances in stem cell and gene editing technologies, an increasing number of researchers are interested in growing human tissues and organs in animals by introducing pluripotent human cells into early animal embryos. Formation of these types of human-animal organism, referred to as ‘chimeras’, holds tremendous potential for disease modeling, drug testing, and perhaps eventual organ transplant. However, uncertainty about the effects of human cells on off-target organs and tissues in the chimeric animals, particularly in the nervous system, raises ethical and animal welfare concerns.”

Despite the concerns, the NIH says that this research is vital to the medical community and that the ban on federal funding should be lifted on non-primate animals. The proposal would make it possible for researchers to implant human stem cells in the embryos of most animals except for primates such as monkey and chimpanzees. This means that scientists could request federal funds for studies involving chimera pigs, cows, or sheep; however, they could not request such funds to create chimera monkey embryos.

While the proposal is still pending, the change could prove huge for the medical community. The goal of many researchers is to produce pigs, sheep, or cows with human hearts, livers, kidneys, or other transplant-ready organs. However, the research is still controversial as the animals would be grown specifically for organ harvest and the side effects of human stem cells are currently not fully known, meaning the animals could potential suffer should the nervous system be significantly altered.

Likewise, others are concerned that human cells could cause the animals to produce human eggs or sperm causing reproductive concerns.

“Another is that they could develop into animals with human sperm and eggs and breed, producing human embryos or fetuses inside animals or hybrid creatures.”

Despite the animal welfare and potential breeding concerns, the NIH believes that the proposed changes can be done responsibly with oversight.

“I am confident that these proposed changes will enable the NIH research community to move this promising area of science forward in a responsible manner.”

What do you think about the federal funding of human-animal chimera embryos?

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