July 22, 2011

Hybridized Animal-Human Experiments Need Regulation

Increased scientific research and experiments that involve the placement of human genes and cells into animals need new rules and regulations to ensure they are ethically acceptable and do not lead to Frankenstein-like creatures being bred in science labs, a group of leading British researchers said on Friday.

The Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) warned that scientists are in danger of turning animals into monsters unless the ethical measures are taken. It said scientists may not be far from giving apes the ability to think and talk like humans.

Concerns about the creation of talking apes and other human-like animals should be taken seriously along with "what one might call the "ËœFrankenstein fear' that the medical research which creates "Ëœhumanized' animals is going to generate monsters," the group claimed.

A regulatory body is needed to monitor any experiments that risk creating human-like animals, spawning human-animal hybrid embryos, or giving animals any appearance or behavior traits that are meant for humans only, the report said.

While current experiments in Britain do not include any monster-making goals, it is possible that without careful monitoring ethical borders could be crossed within the next few years, according to the experts.

Professor Thomas Baldwin, a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said the possibility of humanized apes is a serious matter.

"The fear is that if you start putting very large numbers of human brain cells into the brains of primates suddenly you might transform the primate into something that has some of the capacities that we regard as distinctively human.. speech, or other ways of being able to manipulate or relate to us," he told the Telegraph.

"These possibilities that are at the moment largely explored in fiction we need to start thinking about now," he said.

The Academy warning comes shortly before the opening of the new film "ËœRise of the Planet of the Apes,' in which scientists searching for a cure for Alzheimer's create a new breed of ape with human-like intelligence.

Professor Martin Bobrow, chair of the Academy, told the Telegraph: "The very great majority of experiments present no issues beyond the general use of animals in research and these should proceed under current regulation."

"A limited number of experiments should be permissible subject to scrutiny by the expert body we recommend; and a very limited range should not be undertaken, at least until the potential consequences are more fully understood."

"AMRC only supports research that is absolutely necessary and where no suitable alternative methods are available," Lord Willis, chair of the Association of Medical Research Charities told the Telegraph's Nick Collins.

"New techniques to incorporate human cells or genetic information into animal models have the potential to find solutions to conditions that are currently life threatening or debilitating, and the Academy's proposals will give scientists that opportunity without compromising tough regulation," he added.

For example, scientists would be prevented from replacing a large number of an ape's brain with human cells -- an experiment that has already been undertaken in simpler animals like mice -- until much more is known about the potential outcome.

The introduction of human material into animals has furthered medical research.

Putting human breast tumor cells into mice has allowed researchers to test cancer drugs on human tissue. Stroke damaged mice showed some recovery when their brains were injected with human neural stem cells. And mice with Down's Syndrome have had a whole human chromosome added to their genome to help researchers learn more about the illness.

Professor Christopher Shaw, from King's College London, told BBC News that animals with human material were "hugely important. Is [the field] going to shrink and go away? No. I'm confident it will lead to new treatments."

The Academy said it expected a "a major increase in the use of these techniques." However, it raised concerns that some cases would fall through gaps in the regulation.

The authors said that, for example, experiments on an embryo which contained predominantly human material would be controlled by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority and the embryo would not progress beyond 14 days.

For embryos which are mostly animal, but contained some human material, they said there was "no regulation at all," it said.

Animal research is regulated by the Home Office's animal procedures committee.

"Our report recommends that the Home Office puts in place a national expert body, within the existing stringent system of animal research regulation, to provide specific advice on sensitive types of 'animals containing human material' research," Bobrow told BBC's James Gallagher.

The Academy is recommending three classifications for research on animals containing human genes or cells.

Category one experiments would have no more restrictions than any other study on animals.

Category two experiments could be allowed but "would require strong scientific justification." The report suggested this would include adding genes to non-human primates and significant changes to an animal to make it "more human-like."

Category three experiments would not be allowed, such as letting any mixed embryo develop past 14 days or breeding animals with human influenced sperm or egg cells and modifying non-human primates to create human-like behavior or intelligence.

Bobrow was keen to stress that "nobody has done any of these things," but the Academy said it wanted the guidelines in place now rather than waiting until it does happen.

"We welcome the valuable contribution of this study to the understanding of the complex ethical, scientific and animal welfare issues involved in this area of research," Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone told BBC News. "We will consider the recommendations carefully." 


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