Use of human DNA in animals probed
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