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Of Mice, Men and Stem-Cell Research

by Osagie K. ObasogieSan Francisco Chronicle
February 20th, 2006

President Bush's State of the Union address highlighted several key policy issues, such as America's dependency on foreign oil, the ongoing war in Iraq and Baby Boomers' impact on Social Security. But the president's call for legislation to prohibit scientists from creating "animal-human hybrids" caught many by surprise; the term was one of the most popular Internet searches in the hours following his speech. Many wondered "What is the president talking about?" or "Why is he using his most important speech of the year to come out against science fiction?"

Bush's remarks may very well have been prompted by a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which reported that researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla had created the first set of fully functioning human nerve cells in an animal by injecting human embryonic stem cells into mouse embryos. These mice now experience the world, at least in part, with cells similar to those you are now using to read this article. This is the first time human embryonic stem cells have been shown to develop into a particular type of cell in another species.

Mice with functional human brain parts may offer an innovative opportunity to study and possibly learn how to replace damaged cells that lead to degenerative neural disorders. Many applaud this research as a first step to curing devastating diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis, which hastened the recent death of comedian Richard Pryor.

Creating animals that blur traditional species lines (also known as "chimeras," after the mythological creature with a lion's head, goat's body and serpent's tail) is not exactly new. Think of a mule, which entails breeding a male donkey with a female horse. Or the "geep," a genetically engineered half-goat, half-sheep. What's more, animal parts are also increasingly being used in human health care; pig valves have lengthened the lives of many heart patients, and it is not uncommon for drug manufacturers to use hamster cell lines to develop new pharmaceuticals.

But, manipulating basic life structures to give animals even a minimal level of human brain functioning raises qualitatively different ethical considerations. Take, for example, Yale University's Dr. Eugene Redmond, who is using human/primate chimeras to study Parkinson's disease. Redmond injects human embryonic stem cells into the brains of monkeys with Parkinson's to see if these cells improve neural functioning. But keep in mind that primates are mankind's closest living relative; a recent mapping of the chimpanzee genome, for example, shows that it differs from the human genome by only 1.2 percent. Given this close genetic similarity, what happens when these primates' stem-cell injections leads to some type of human consciousness? What if, for example, stressful research conditions cause one of these animals to release excess fluid from its lacrimal glands? Put differently, what if the research pursued by Redmond and the Salk researchers leads to animals with partial human awareness, emotions and even tears?

Does a crying monkey sound far-fetched? Even absurd? The National Academies of Science thinks otherwise. Their guidelines, released in April, suggest that all persons involved in chimeric research using human embryonic stem cells be warned that "visible human-like characteristics might arise." Some argue that given the relatively small percentage of stem cells injected into these animals' brains -- such as the Salk mice with only 0.1 percent -- today's scientists are far from crossing over into such ethically explosive territory.

But can this really comfort us? Is there any question that scientists may push the envelope as far as they can, from 0.1 percent to 1 percent to 10 percent? Why not 100 percent? After the recent scandals involving disgraced South Korean stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk and his American partners, is it sensible to rest our hope that truly nightmarish scenarios will be avoided with voluntary ethical guidelines?

We will all be the poorer if concerns over chimeric research and other genetic and reproductive technologies are reduced to yet another red state/blue state wedge issue. Rather, the implications these technologies hold for basic human integrity suggest that strong federal oversight and regulation are in order. We need bipartisan support for structures analogous to the Environmental Protection Agency or the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that the public interest -- indeed, the human interest -- is protected. Such federal regulation need not stifle prudent research or therapetuic applications. But a cornerstone value of any civilized society is that science's ends, however laudable, cannot justify its means without broader consideration of the public good.

We are fast approaching an important and vital democratic moment, a moment where the public is in a position to ask questions, demand answers and draw lines to prevent humanity's undermining. Let's embrace this challenge with common sense and common decency.

Osagie Obasogie, Project Director on Race, Disability, and Eugenics at the Center for Genetics and Society, has been a racial justice advocate and consultant for several public interest organizations. He is a graduate of Yale University and Columbia Law School, where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar and an editor for the National Black Law Journal.

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