Unsettling Animal-Human Hybrids Are Being Proposed To Provide Cures for Common Disease (Audio)

The pursuit of wellness knows no bounds. Throughout history, human beings have relied on remarkably innovative (although perhaps not always effective) techniques to address illness – like the ancient Egyptian toothache cure made up of ground mice, the 18th-century treatment of stuttering through cutting off half the tongue, and the use of arsenic as a panacea. While creative and well intentioned, such approaches lacked the scientific and technological advancements available to us today, but that does not preclude contemporary medical advancements from being equally bizarre. Earlier this week (May 16), a Boston-area man made international medical news for being the first American recipient of a penis transplant, and a new report from NPR gets even more science-fictiony: scientists have created embryos that are human and animal.

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All in the name of medicine, of course. More specifically, the bold new advancements are being made in the effort to find cures for various diseases in a way that allows researchers to track how the human body reacts, adapts, and suffers when introduced to a potentially fatal illness. In a segment for its “Health Shots” column, NPR’s Rob Stein examines the world of chimeras, the hybrid organism in question (named after the Greek mythological creature that is equal parts lion, serpent, and goat). “[T]he boldest hope is to create farm animals that have human organs that could be transplanted into terminally ill patients,” he writes. Unsurprisingly, the news has many fearing that scientific medicine is encroaching too much into a dystopian laboratory. In fact, according to the report, “the experiments are so sensitive that the National Institutes of Health has imposed a moratorium on funding them while officials explore the ethical issues they raise.”

What’s driving the ethical train of those who support the audacious endeavor is the potential it has to address some really serious problems. As one reproductive biologist told NPR, “We’re not trying to make a chimera just because we want to see some kind of monstrous creature. We’re doing this for a biomedical purpose.” The process behind the biomedical purpose involves, for example, removing a normal pig embryo’s pancreas-making gene and then inserting human genes into the void with hopes they’ll naturally recreate what’s lacking therein – only in human form. The truly Frankenstein-esque step is when that embryo containing human genes is placed inside the womb of a pig. After a few weeks go by, the embryos are extracted and studied so as to track what effect the genetic amalgam is having on the structure of the growing pig. Even more bizarre is the fact that much of the procedure is based on hope that human genes will recreate that missing pancreas, but the genes could actually become other forms of tissue. Like brain tissue. “If you have pigs with partly human brains you would have animals that might actually have consciousness like a human. It might have human-type needs. We don’t really know,” the biologist explains.

If all goes according to plan, the implications of chimeras carry some really positive weight. That’s a really big “if.”