LONDON – In ancient mythology, the chimera was a fire-breathing creature made up of the parts of various animals. Typically, it was portrayed with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent.
It was hardly a surprise, therefore, that the announcement in May that the British Parliament is proposing a bill to legalize the laboratory creation of human-animal hybrids caused something of a stir.
The demand for legislation to create interspecies embryos is being driven with great enthusiasm by members of the scientific community. Researchers claim that experimentation on animal-human embryos will offer insights into possible cures for certain cancers and such conditions as Alzheimer’s and motor neuron diseases.
At least two British teams have already applied for licenses to create “cytoplasmic hybrids” or “cybrids,” in which human DNA is added to an empty animal egg to form an embryo that is 99.9 percent human.
Besides allowing this technique, the draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill would also permit the creation of chimeras, formed when animal cells are added to human embryos, and transgenic human embryos, created by injecting animal DNA into a human embryo.
In all cases, the bill stipulates that the embryos must be destroyed within two weeks and cannot be implanted into a woman.
Only true hybrid embryos, formed when animal sperm fertilizes a human egg or vice versa, would be illegal.
But in mid-June Britain’s influential Academy of Medical Sciences concluded in a report that there was no compelling moral or ethical reason why such research should not be allowed.
Josephine Quintavalle of the public lobby group Comment on Reproductive Ethics told Catholic News Service June 27 that the bill is very likely to pass through the houses of Parliament in the fall. She said that it was also structured in such a way that the government could approve new advances without recourse to Parliament.
“I think that the overall nature of the bill is more important than the contents,” said Quintavalle, a Catholic.
“Anything that could happen in the future is not prohibited but can be permitted just by altering the definition,” she explained.
Part of the problem, she added, was that science had become a new “fundamentalism” in Britain.
“Politicians are increasingly reluctant to engage in genuine scrutiny of the claims made by scientists, particularly in the field of embryonic stem cells,” said Quintavalle. “The evidence base presented in this field has been particularly inadequate. A colossal amount of time has been wasted justifying the creation of interspecies embryos without robust scientific counterarguments.
“The debate has been presented erroneously as simply a battle between pro-life or religious absolutists and a united secular scientific community of the highest integrity,” she added.
In the eyes of the church, however, the moral case against the creation and killing of such embryos is overwhelming.
Such a view was expounded in a June 20 joint submission by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales and the Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics to a parliamentary committee set up to scrutinize the bill.
The bishops and Linacre said that where there was a preponderance of human genetic material, for example, in cybrids, such creations should be considered human and should enjoy full human rights, including a right to life.
In a separate submission obtained June 27 by CNS, the Linacre Centre further argued that it was morally wrong to even create interspecies embryos that could not be considered human.
“It is true that many chimera or hybrid embryos may not, in fact, be human embryos, even if human embryonic cells are used to create them,” said the submission. “We believe that the production of hybrids and chimeras can still offend against human dignity.”
On top of all this are the claims from some scientists that the research is unlikely to bear any positive results.
Among the critics is Colin McGuckin, professor of regenerative medicine at the University of Newcastle, England, and an internationally respected researcher in the field of adult stem cells derived from umbilical cords. He told CNS June 27 that what had been vital to most of the breakthroughs in stem-cell technology was the ability to match tissue types, thereby radically reducing the risk of the body rejecting tissue it detects as foreign.
“The best potential transplant you could have is from ‘you’ to ‘you,’“ he explained, adding that for this reason there was no advantage in developing interspecies embryos for such techniques.
“Even if you develop some nice tissue in the laboratory, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be transplantable,” he said.
McGuckin said there was “no evidence whatsoever” that interspecies research would lead to a single cure.
“Some DNA is in the mitochondria of the cell,” he said. “If you transfer mitochondria and there are abnormalities, you give that person a disease; even if there is just a small amount of animal mitochondria in there, it will never go away. If there is tissue that is going to be rejected, it is never going to help the patient.
“If you look at the U.K., there hasn’t really been any debate,” he said. “What is happening in Parliament doesn’t really represent the people on the ground.
“I think the bill will go through the House of Commons. They will probably pass a law saying limited animal-human hybrids will be allowed, then the Medical Research Council will give scientists public money for research and the results will be nil.”
He asked: “What is there to show for the millions of pounds that have gone into embryonic stem-cell research in recent years compared to the small amount of funds for adult stem-cell research, which has been delivering the results?”