Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Human-pig hybrid embryos given go ahead

From The Telegraph (UK):

A licence to create human-pig embryos to study heart disease has been issued by the fertility watchdog.

This marks the third animal-human hybrid embryo licence to be issued by Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the first since the Commons voted in favour of this controversial research last month.

An HFEA spokesman said it had approved an application from the Clinical Sciences Research Institute, University of Warwick, for the creation of hybrid embryos. The centre has been offered a 12 month licence with effect from today, July 1.

The effort at the University of Warwick is led by Professor Justin St John. "This new license allows us to attempt to make human pig clones to produce embryonic stem cells," he said, where embryonic stem cells are able to turn into the 200 plus types in the body.

"Ultimately they will help us to understand where some of the problems associated with these diseases arise and they could also provide models for the pharmaceutical industry to test new drugs. We will effectively be creating and studying these diseases in a dish.

"But it's important to say that we're at the very early stages of this research and it will take a considerable amount of time. There is still a great deal to learn about these techniques and much of our early work will involve understanding how we can make the hybrid cloning process as efficient as possible."

The study is aimed at understanding the way power-producing structures in cells, called mitochondria, are passed from egg to embryo. In the hybrid, the mitochondria mostly come from the egg, initially making up around half of the DNA by weight, and the team will do experiments in order to ensure that the trace of human mitochondrial DNA takes over, not least because it is designed to work with human nuclear DNA.

"The key thing we are doing is trying to create stem cells without any animal DNA in them. So even though these hybrid embryos normally have a small percentage of animal DNA , we are hoping to create cells that would have human chromosomes and human mitochondrial DNA."

The reason is that, as the team puts it, "mixing of these two diverse populations of
mitochondria can be detrimental to cellular function." Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat science spokesman, commenting on the HFEA decision to issue a license to the University of Warwick to create hybrid embryos combining human skin cells with enucleated pig eggs, said: "This application is a further indication of the interest in this sort of research by UK scientists, the decision of the HFEA to issue a license following stringent checks demonstrates that it is considered both necessary and ethical."

"While this approval comes under the existing 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, both houses of Parliament have recently voted by large majorities to allow it into the future," said Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, of the MRC National Institute For Medical Research. [...]

Teams in Newcastle and London are already creating hybrids. The former have already created hybrids with cow eggs to study the basics of how the use of genes changes in early development, the latter a range of species to generate stem cells from people with neurodegenerative disorders.

This may come as a surprise to some, but I currently have no strong objections to these particular experiments. The original tissue is not derived by creating a new human being, and the result is not a new human being. I suppose the claim could be made that the hoped-for result is a cloned human cell with all pig DNA removed, but I'm not sure that's a problem either. You could say the same thing about any cultured tissue line. Parts is parts,even if those parts be chromosomes. I reserve the right to change my mind, however, if somebody can give me a convincing argument.

The situation changes, though if such a reconstructed stem cell line were somehow to be converted to an embryo. I'm not sure anyone can do that, but it would at that point constitute a new human being, even with the original cytoplasm derived from a porker. The moral consequences are severe; I don't have an intrinsic moral problem with human clones - a cloned human is simply human individual with the same God given attributes as any other human being. The problem is extrinsic and based on original sin. We are what we are - human cloning will lead inevitably to either engineered slaves or "parts people." I have a pretty low view of the human response to grace; we may have the capacity for goodness, but we have little history of showing any interest.

Human-pig hybrids are, of course, only the first step in creating what we all know is the ultimate biotechnological horror, ManBearPig - compared to whom the Antichrist is Shirley Temple. That breakthrough would allow the Democratic party to grow their future voters by the factory load.