Lab-grown human-monkey chimeras prompt major ethical debates

Reuben Fellow Katrien Devolder has been much in demand by the world’s media this week, as public interest grew in the news of lab-grown embryos mixing human and monkey cells.

The news broke late last week when an academic paper was published in Cell, reporting the results of researchers who set out to study “chimeric competency of human extended pluripotent stem cells (hEPSCs) in cynomolgus monkey (Macaca fascicularis) embryos cultured ex vivo”.

A chimera is an organism formed by mixing cells from two or more individuals that are genetically distinct. A chimera can be formed naturally in humans, for example when a foetus absorbs its twin, but experiments that combine human cells into the embryo of another animal are highly controversial. Some scientists say that this is important research, as it helps scientists gain knowledge about early development, and build new animal models to study human diseases and develop new treatments. It may also be a way to grow human tissue or even organs inside other animals, like pigs or sheep, thereby increasing both opportunities for and potential success rates of organ transplants. 

Katrien Devolder gave comments to a number of news outlets about the ethical implications of such research. Katrien was clear to explain that since the embryos were destroyed before they were 20 days’ old, they had no nervous system or any form of mental capacity. As she told Science magazine: 

“They can’t experience pain and aren’t conscious…[But] if the human-monkey chimeras were allowed to develop further,” she said, “that would be a very different story.”

The debates as such science continues will no doubt increase in number and complexity. The insights from practical ethicists and bioethicists are invaluable in helping scientists and governments navigate these debates so that research may be undertaken with safety and integrity at its heart.

Katrien’s comments were quoted in a number of different news outlets, and in interviews with the BBC and TalkRadio. Links are provided below:

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