Use of hu­man DNA in an­i­mals probed

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE - KATE KEL­LAND

LON­DON: A mouse that can speak? A mon­key with Down’s syn­drome? Dogs with hu­man hands or feet? Bri­tish sci­en­tists want to know if such ex­per­i­ments go too far in the name of med­i­cal re­search.

The Academy of Med­i­cal Sciences’ study of the use of an­i­mals con­tain­ing hu­man ma­te­rial in sci­en­tific re­search is ex­pected to take at least a year. Its leaders hope it will help es­tab­lish guide­lines for sci­en­tists on how far the pub­lic is pre­pared to see them go in mix­ing hu­man genes into an­i­mals to dis­cover ways to fight hu­man dis­eases.

“Do th­ese con­structs chal­lenge our idea of what it is to be hu­man?” said Martin Bo­brow, a pro­fes­sor of med­i­cal ge­net­ics at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity and chair of a 14-mem­ber group looking into the mat­ter.

“It is im­por­tant that we con­sider th­ese ques­tions now so that ap­pro­pri­ate bound­aries are recog­nised and re­search is able to ful­fil its po­ten­tial.”

Al­ready, sci­en­tists have cre­ated rhe­sus macaque mon­keys that have a hu­man form of the Hunt­ing­ton’s gene so they can in­ves­ti­gate how the dis­ease de­vel­ops; and mice with liv­ers made from hu­man cells are be­ing used to study the ef­fects of new drugs.

But they say the tech­nol­ogy to put ever greater amounts of hu­man ge­netic ma­te­rial into an­i­mals is spread­ing quickly around the world, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that some sci­en­tists may want to push bound­aries.

“There is a whole raft of new sci­en­tific tech­niques that will make it not only eas­ier but also more im­por­tant to be able to do th­ese cross-species ex­per­i­ments,” Bo­brow said.

A row erupted in Bri­tain last year over new laws al­low­ing the cre­ation of hu­man-an­i­mal em­bryos for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

The row drew in­ter­ven­tions from re­li­gious groups, which said such ex­per­i­ments per­verted the course of na­ture, and sci­en­tific leaders, who said they were vi­tal to re­search cures for dis­eases.

Bo­brow said he and his col­leagues were keen to avoid more fren­zied de­bate and hoped that by act­ing now they would be able to in­form dis­cus­sion rather than re­act to it.

But they said the dis­cus­sions over hu­manan­i­mal em­bryos, which in­volve putting hu­man DNA into cells de­rived from an­i­mals to pro­duce stem cells, were “only half the con­ver­sa­tion” and did not look at an­i­mals al­tered with hu­man cells.

“They re­ally didn’t deal... with a much broader range of is­sues like how far is it rea­son­able to try to mimic im­por­tant hu­man traits in an­i­mals,” Bo­brow said. “There are prob­lems there in terms of so­cial ac­cep­tance.”

Bo­brow said there was a “sort of un­der­stand­ing” within the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity that “as you get close to 50-50 mix” of hu­man and an­i­mal ma­te­rial, the bound­aries are near, but he said laws were vague at best.

“Do most of us care if we make a mouse whose blood cells or liver are hu­man? Prob­a­bly not. But if it can speak? If it can think? Or if it is con­scious in a hu­man way? Then we’re in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ball park.” – Reuters

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