The Japanese government has approved experiments to grow — and bring to full term — human organs in animals.  The ultimate goal of the pioneering experiments is to generate human hearts, kidneys, livers and other organs for transplant. 

Stem cell scientist, Hiromitsu Nakauchi, is leading the research effort.  He heads teams at the University of Tokyo and Stanford University in California.

Japan’s approval of the experiments is likely to stir a swirl of controversy in the coming months and years.  There are those who believe the experiments will one day save countless human lives.

However, the very notion of human-animal embryo experiments has long caused apprehension among certain quarters of the international community. 

The ultimate goal of the controversial experiments is to generate human hearts, kidneys, livers and other organs for transplant. (Photo: Science Pictures ltd/SPL)

Blurring the Lines?

The Japanese government had previously banned such experiments within Japan’s borders.  The government lifted the ban last March.     

Critics claim such efforts could yield results that pose profound — perhaps even bizarre — ethical and social challenges.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health had earlier expressed concern that injecting human cells into animal embryo could blur the lines between species. 

Too Human for Comfort?

The agency has publicly voiced apprehensions that such efforts could alter the cognitive state of animals involved. The concern is that the animals might become too human for comfort.

What is implied can be of enormous consequence.  Humans can be both intelligent and ruthless. The combination makes us capable of extreme violence

The inclination toward the destruction of perceived threats — ‘the other’ — is inherent in human tribal psychology.

The calls for caution are therefore valid.

“I’m planning to proceed slowly, and will not attempt to bring any hybrid embryos to term for some time,” Nakauchi says. 

Nakauchi’s experiments involve a mishmash of cutting-edge stem cell biology and gene-editing technology. 

Nakauchi’s experiments involve a mishmash of cutting-edge stem cell biology and gene-editing technology. (Photo: Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte)

Proceeding Slowly

The research teams begin by changing the DNA in the embryos of rats and mice so that they are incapable of producing certain tissues.  The scientists then inject human stem cells into these embryos to form the missing organ.  They eventually transfer the embryos to female livestock for gestation.

For now, Nakauchi has limited the experiments to the generation of human pancreas.  He plans to proceed slowly.  He says he and his teams will not attempt to bring any hybrid embryos to term for some time.

“We don’t expect to create human organs immediately, but this allows us to advance our research based upon the know-how we have gained up to this point,” Nakauchi says.     

What’s your take on these experiments? Is the effort to save human lives worth the risk of creating a potentially dangerous new problem?