Scientists may be a step closer to growing human organs in animals.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is considering lifting a moratorium that blocked funding for experimentation involving human stem cells and animal embryos. The agency proposed the new policy on Thursday.
This could give scientists the opportunity to receive federal funding for controversial chimera research that could help create life-saving organs like kidneys and pancreases for transplant patients.
In its proposal, the NIH writes it will establish a committee to provide input on certain human-animal chimera research proposals. The agency announced that is was considering a revision in its former policy, established in 2009, because technology and knowledge in the field of chimera research has rapidly advanced in the past few years.
“There is clear interest and potential in producing animal models with human tissues or organs for studying human development, disease pathology, and eventually organ transplantation,” the NIH explained.
Growing life-saving organs
Currently, there’s a worldwide shortage of donor organs. Twenty-two people die every day in the United States while waiting on transplant lists.
Researchers at the University of California, Davis and other institutions have been trying to tackle this problem by growing human organs inside animals such as pigs and cows. This mixture of human and animal DNA is known as chimera, a term that refers to a monstrous hybrid creature from Greek mythology.
The animal rights group PETA is opposed to the research.
“Scientists shouldn’t be supremacists. If it’s wrong to test on a #chimera, it’s wrong to test on ALL animals!” it said on its Twitter feed Friday.
But many scientists working in the field are thrilled about the new development. Biologist Pablo Ross at UC-Davis, who is working on growing human organs in farm animals, said the fact that the federal agency is considering funding is welcome news.
“As a researcher in the field, it is great to have the possibility to apply for funding to NIH, since NIH is the major source of funding for biomedical research,” he told CNN.
The ethical dilemma
There is tremendous potential that this research will help with treating diseases and testing drugs, Carrie Wolinetz, associate director for science policy at the NIH, explained in a recent blog post.
“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,” she added.
In November 2015, the institute said it would not support this line of research because there were concerns chimeras could acquire a cognitive state. Since human stem cells are used in this human-animal experimentation, some scientists are worried that these stem cells have the potential to create a human brain inside an animal.
The possibility of mental cognition — an intrinsically human experience — occurring inside an animal raises some pressing bioethical questions, Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center of Ethics at Emory University told CNN in June.
“This is a pretty crude procedure. We are throwing stem cells into embryonic cells and hoping that it works out. We have to be really careful about that,” he said.
The direction of science
The chance of an animal acquiring human consciousness is very slim, according to researchers.
The NIH has not only launched a steering committee to review new research proposals, but it is also seeking public comment on the scope of chimera research.
“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,” Wolinetz added.
In addition to growing human organs, this research could potentially produce treatment options for people with chronic and life-threatening diseases like diabetes, scientist Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, explained in June.
As of right now, human organs have not been successfully grown inside of animals because the embryos have been terminated after 28 days.
Belmonte said the only way to know if it’s possible is for him and other scientists to have the funding to do the research.
The ban on funding for chimera research remains in place while an NIH steering committee considers the new policy. The agency is also seeking public comment on the issue.
By Jareen Imam