Were you confused when President Bush spoke of banning the creation of human-animal hybrids? I was, I had no idea what a human-animal hybrid was. However, Dr. Paul Myers, of the University of Minnesota, was able to shed some light on the subject.
Question: In President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union Address, he spoke of wanting to pass legislation that would prohibit the “most egregious abuses” in medical research, the creation of human animal hybrids. When he spoke of this, I thought of Pan, the Greek mythological creature, who was half goat, half man. Pan was believed to bring on sudden fear; this is where we get our word “panic” from. What are human animal hybrids and are they something we should be in a panic about?
Myers: They are organisms produced by the fusion of elements from different species. We make genetic hybrids all the time, by artificially inserting genes or whole chromosomes from one organism into cells of another. There are also research chimeras, produced by mixing whole cells or tissues from one organism into another. There's nothing to panic about. It's a powerful research tool that could conceivably be misused, but the kinds of ideas that leap into a lay person's mind when human-animal hybrids are mentioned are not even possible. We aren't talking about half-goat, half-man creatures-- these are either cells you can only see under a microscope or animals that look normal, except that they may carry some tissues that are of a different origin.
Question: Is this the kind of research generally accepted as ethical in the scientific community, or is there a legitimate debate about it being an egregious abuse?
Myers: Most of it is taken as normal, ethical, and completely unchallenging. For instance, we get most of our commercial insulin from a human gene that has been inserted into bacteria, and there are people walking around who might be called "chimeras" because they have heart valve transplants from pig donors. It's very rare to find anyone who considers that objectionable.
There are experiments with human embryonic stem cell tissue that are far closer to a common ethical boundary, and there is a legitimate debate about that. There is active discussion within the scientific community right now about where we should draw the lines. . .
Question: How would we benefit from this research?
Myers: Hybrid cells and animals are incredibly useful. There's the whole business of biotechnology, using animals to produce human-specific proteins and hormones. There's potential for transplantation uses: how about inserting human genes into tissues for transplantation, to reduce the potential for rejection?...
Question: What would be the consequences of making this research illegal?
Myers: First of all, the comments in Bush's state of the union address were so sweeping and vague that it is impossible to tell precisely what he has in mind. Taken literally, as a broad prohibition on a diverse and useful and common suite of biological tools in wide use in many fields of research, it amounts to a near-total shutdown of advanced research in reproductive biology. It would be catastrophic. It would lead to the brightest minds in developmental biology in our country packing up and moving abroad.
I suspect that what we heard was clumsy wording from someone who doesn't know what he is talking about, with no clear intent to do much of anything. Alternatively, he has some more narrow set of restrictions in mind, which we'll hear about later--that's also worrisome, since we don't have any idea what line of research he's planning to make more difficult. Or he could have just been talking in code words to his base on the Religious Right. I doubt that we'll see the worst-case catastrophic scenario play out, but these other alternatives -- incompetence, smaller steps in restricting research, or pandering to an anti-science constituency -- aren't particularly reassuring, either.
Question: Being someone from the scientific community, how do you feel the Bush administration has done on promoting scientific research and education?
Myers: This has been the anti-science presidency. He hasn't promoted good science at all, but rather has harmed our scientific institutions. From his uninformed restrictions on stem cell research, to his waffling on global warming, to his advocacy of Intelligent Design creationism, to his ideologically-driven advancement of impractical research (who believes we're really going to Mars?), he has been a disaster. The Worst President Ever.
Thank you Dr. Myers, for explaining to us what an animal human hybrid is and what the effects of legislation banning this research would have. Dr Paul Myers has written about this and other interesting topics on his blog Pharyngula. Be sure to check out his blog.