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Scientists may have just taken a leap into the vast unknown by injecting human cells into monkey embryos.
Is this a life-saving breakthrough, or are we headed for catastrophe?
The Spanish daily, El Pais, claims a team of researchers have created embryos that are part human, part monkey.
The Spanish-born biologist, Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, has been working with researchers in China to perform the unsettling experiments, according to El Pais.
The objective is to create hybrid creatures, or “human-animal chimeras.”
Avoiding Legal Impediments
Belmonte operates a laboratory at the Salk Institute in California. He and his colleagues conducted the research in China to avoid legal impediments.
The US National Institutes of Health says that, by law, the US government cannot devote funds for the creation of human-monkey embryos.
There is no such rule in China.
Some observers suggest this is probably why the researchers are conducting the experiment there.
News of the controversial research comes soon after the Japanese government lifted of a ban on human-animal embryo experiments.
The Chimera Technique
The creation of chimeras requires cutting-edge genetic engineering and technology. The procedure involves injecting human embryonic stem cells into the days-old embryo of other species.
Using genome-editing tools, researchers delete genes that the laboratory animals need to grow certain organs. The hope is that the human cells will take over and grow along with the embryo.
The proposal behind the experiments is to produce animals, in this case monkeys, that possess organs comprised of entirely human cells. Ultimately, surgeons should be able to harvest the animals’ organs for transplant operations.
“An Obvious Concern?”
Reports about the experiments in China have invited thorny questions over ethics and security.
But Professor Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute sees no cause for alarm – for now. However, he does caution against going too far at this point.
“If you allow these animals to go all the way through and be born, if you have a big contribution to the central nervous system from the human cells, then that obviously becomes a concern,” Lovell-Badge tells the Guardian.
Izpisúa Belmonte and his colleagues had earlier managed to produce pig embryos and sheep embryos that contain human cells. However, the researchers determined that the proportion of human cells in the animals’ organs was inadequate.
If the recent reports are accurate, the experiments in China might yield a different outcome. Because monkeys are genetically much closer to humans, some experts say success is not as far-fetched for Izpisúa Belmonte this time.
Chimpanzees share 99.6% of their DNA with us. At what point would a chimp cease to be a chimp and become a human?
What do you think?