By Richard Alleyne
Review into animal-human hybrids used in medical research is launched
Researchers around the world use animals implanted with human DNA to study a number of conditions and test new drug treatments.
But as they become ever more sophisticated experts are concerned that an ethical line may be crossed.
Now a panel of experts at the Academy of Medical Sciences, including ethicists and philosophers, are to look to see if safeguards need to be updated to stop half man-half beast “minotaur” like hybrids being created.
Many thousands of animals have already been created containing human cells or DNA, mostly genetically engineered mice.
But new technologies are taking the research to areas many people find disturbing.
Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, head of development genetics at the Medical Research Council, said that while monkeys with human faces and animals that talked have yet to be created the technology was “pretty much there”.
“Human like animals are still science fiction but it is not that far away from development,” he said.
“There may be very good research reasons to do it but it might also upset the public.”
Scientists believe the hybrid animals will be an invaluable source of research that can be used to study and treat human diseases.
Examples of “humanised” animals include rhesus macaque monkeys carrying the gene for Huntington’s disease, and mice with human-like livers which can be used to study the effects of new drugs.
Professor Martin Bobrow, who is chairing the working group, said the review was not into embryos or the implanting of animal genes into humans which had already been covered in a previous review.
“We will not only be focusing on the ethical dimensions of this research but also on how it is perceived by the public. Do these constructs challenge our idea of what it is to be human? It is important that we consider these questions now so that appropriate boundaries are recognised and research is able to fulfil its potential.”
“Our study will be an important step in developing guidance on how different entities along the human/animal spectrum are treated for the purpose of law and regulation in the future,” he added.
One aim of the project will be to agree definitions for animals and animal embryos containing human genes or cells.
The experts will also predict future research directions, address safety and animal welfare issues, and evaluate the legal framework scientists have to work within.