In a recent breakthrough study, scientists successfully created human-pig embryos. They were carried by adult pigs for about 4 weeks and then removed and analysed. The embryos contained only 0.001% of human cells, but enough to give this new study a promising start.
The main aim of this new area of research is to find alternative ways to provide organs for patients waiting on a transplantation. Every day, 22 people on the waiting list die due to shortage of the needed organs. Many methods were tried in order to battle this, such as growing synthetic organs in labs and using organs from other animals, but none showed great promise as human bodies repeatedly rejected them.
This new method, the creation of what is scientifically known as chimera – an organism containing genetic codes of two or more different species – seems to be the future. The idea is to insert human stem cells into pig embryos and get them to develop into adult creatures which would mostly be of pig nature, but having developed some human organs. They will potentially be more easily accepted when transplanted into human bodies and would even possibly eliminate the need for anti-rejection medication.
The problem with this approach, however, is of a slightly different nature. Even in its early days, it already raises some serious ethical questions. Firstly, we have to address the consequences of actually implementing this method one day. It would necessarily involve killing the chimera and harvesting the needed organs. Now, this is somewhat different from animal testing currently used in medical research as it includes raising the creature to adulthood with the sole purpose of killing it for its organs. The rights of animals are a major topic of public debates, and this practice would just cause more controversy around it.
Another problem would be if the chimera accidentally developed self-consciousness as a result of using human stem cells. This would pose an even bigger ethical dilemma because our definition of a “person” would have to change. Usually, when dealing with ethics, we use this term for any being that is rational and autonomous. However, if the chimera acquired these characteristics, killing it would be just as morally wrong as killing a human person, and so the line between humans and animals would get significantly thinner. This would also heavily impact our view of the human life and question the value we assign to it.
This research also unlocks the possibilities of creating other types of human-animal hybrids, which includes those that are mostly human, with some non-human organs. This hypothetical practice could provide a significant boost to genome editing technology, with the power of combining wanted characteristics of different organisms. The aim of modern medicine is considered to be the overall improvement of human health and wellbeing, with the desire to prolong life expectancy. Genetic manipulation is certainly not a new idea of achieving this, but if this study shows such promise, it could be taken to a whole new level. And while it would be totally cool to have wings or breathe under water, we should first have a long think about the moral problems awaiting on that road.
Certainly, this all may sound like a review of a sci-fi novel or a crazy scientist’s idea, but it’s not. The new era of medical advancement has had its beginning, and it is not a question of ‘What if?’ anymore. It is a question of ‘What now?’. Surely, there are numerous positive sides to this breakthrough, and the study indeed shows great promise for various applications even outside its initial domain. Furthermore, if it solves the original problem of the lack of transplantation organs, it will have contributed to the society immensely.
However, before implementing this method, we should carefully examine all possible outcomes and problems that may arise, and then discuss them some more. Above mentioned ethical concerns suggest that we should be extremely careful when approaching new territories in science. Just because something seems like a good idea, it doesn’t necessarily have to be one; and realising that requires some thinking.