I wonder if Mary Shelley, author of the early 19th century novel Frankenstein, ever imagined where science would take us today?
Her book featured a stern warning about breaching ethical boundaries in the name of science.
Apparently, it has fallen on deaf ears.
Earlier this year, Dr. Ali Brivanlou and his team of researchers at Rockefeller University in New York City created the first human-chicken hybrid embryo. In May, the science journal Nature published their findings. What would override the natural ick-factor associated with combining humans and animals? They believed a human-chicken embryo would make it possible to discover the presence of human developmental cell organizers. Organizer cells direct other cells to form into different biological systems of the body such as the nervous and circulatory systems.
Organizer cells were discovered in Germany in the early 20th century. University of Freiberg biologists Hans Spemann and Hilde Mangold experimented with salamanders, yielding groundbreaking results. They discovered the existence of cells that dictated the creation of an amphibian’s central nervous system.
Naturally, scientists didn’t want to stop there. For decades, some have desperately wanted to study cell organizers in human embryos, but scientific guidelines known as the “14-day rule” established by the National Institutes of Health in 1994 prevent such experiments.
These guidelines have been adopted as rules or made law in 12 countries and prevent scientists from studying human embryos created outside of the womb after 14 days. Fetal heartbeat, the primitive streak (a folded cellular structure marking the beginning of the central nervous system), ability to feel pain, and other traits that conclusively demonstrate the presence of the growing human form begin developing after 14 days. Many would argue human embryos should be protected from day one.
Brivanlou and his team got around this ethical barrier by creating a gastruloid, an embryo-like structure derived from human embryonic stem cells. But remember, embryonic stem cells can only be derived through killing a days-old human embryo.
Already violating ethical boundaries and skirting scientific guidelines, researchers then injected specific embryological proteins into the gastruloid, which initiated the formation of the primitive streak. They grafted the cells onto 12-hour-old chicken embryos and watched what happened next. The human organizer cells – basically the architects of the cellular universe – began to create a second chicken nervous system.
Just like what was sold to the public regarding embryonic stem cell research, some scientists are promising this new research could lead to cures for currently untreatable diseases and vast increases in scientific knowledge. But these so-called “advancements” undermine ethics and morality.
First of all, the creation of human-animal chimeras, or organisms composed from different species, blurs the distinction between human beings and animals. Putting human life on a sliding scale instead of viewing it as fundamentally different from all other forms of life compromises our ability to defend the sanctity of human life. Euthanasia and abortion for children with Down syndrome are increasing worldwide, so strong ethical barriers that protect human life need to be set in place now more than ever.
Though scientists say creating these chimeras will prevent the killing of future human embryos, Dr. David Prentice of the Charlotte Lozier Institute warns that expanding federal funds for this research “could lead to additional efforts to create and [kill] human embryos to obtain those cells for this chimera research.” Plus, creating human-animal chimeras already kills human life in its embryonic stage because the creation of the gastruloid requires human embryonic stem cells.
Here’s another chilling reminder. The serious problems associated with embryonic stem cells that led most researchers to abandon them for adult stem cells have not magically disappeared.
Finally, scientists who blithely follow Dr. Frankenstein’s tragic example are not content working with what they call “synthetic embryos.” As Dr. Brivanlou stated, “There is no substitute for studying the real embryo.” Just as the past creation of human-pig and human-sheep chimeras shows, the creation of human-chicken hybrids will not satisfy them. Once this Pandora’s Box is opened there will be no limit to their scientific cannibalization of human life for laboratory advancements.
As absurd as it may sound, Dr. Brivanlou and his team should read Mary Shelley’s book.
Defending innocent human life,