Do you know what today is? March 1st, interestingly enough, is National Pig Day. In recognition of such an unusual day, let’s acknowledge some of the progress made within the scientific community that’s oddly fitting for such a day. This year, scientists made significant progress towards creating a human-pig hybrid.
Yes, you read that right. A team of researchers from the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, California successfully implanted the first human-pig embryo into a pig host
Human-Pig Hybrids – The Stuff of Science Fiction
In 2003, Margaret Atwood, renowned Canadian author, published Oryx and Crake – a piece of speculative fiction that focuses on the hybridity of humans and animals. Among some of the hybrids are crakers, wolvogs, bobkittens, rakunks, snat, and lastly pigoons. Of all the mass-produced, genetically modified creatures, the pigoons are the stuff of nightmares, and what’s worse, they already exist!
In essence, the pigoons are a utopic ideal that solve the problem of organ donation. Rather than dying from kidney failure because there is no available kidney, someone can simply get a kidney from a pigoon, which is genetically modified to have up to four kidneys and can grow more to replace the ones taken. Both the recipient and the donor live; it’s a perfect set-up, but in Atwood’s world genetically modified organisms are set in a dystopia. Intentionally setting the issue of genetic modification in an apocalyptic world, Atwood draws her audience into the ethical debate surrounding this realistic possibility of human-pig hybrids.
Ethical Concerns Regarding Genetic Modification
Understandably, aspects of the technology make some people uneasy, said Jason Robert, a bioethicist at Arizona State University. Before human stem cells are inserted, the animal embryos are altered through a “gene editing” process. The power to alter genes is disconcerting for people. In addition, critics object on the basis of “human dignity,” said Robert. Transferring human cells and tissue to animals, in many people’s opinion, could derogate what it means to be human. Another, more “peculiar” concern, as Robert put it, is the notion that stem cells could affect an animal’s developing brain and endow it with a human-like mentality and consciousness.
Robert admits that human stem cells are powerful; therefore, research needs to proceed cautiously. “This has to be a slow road,” Robert said. Though he cautions, Robert also praises the new research developments: “These are incredibly careful scientists trying to do good work.”
Published on January 26, 2017 in the journal Cell, Jun Wu, a staff scientist at the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, California, and his colleagues documented their progress with regards to their chimera research. Among the first steps the research team took was experimenting with the genes of mice and rats. Using gene-editing technology to alter mouse embryos, the team deleted some of the genes critical for developing particular organs like the heart, pancreas or eyes. Then, they replaced the genes they deleted in the mice with rat stem cells to see if it could successfully fill the developmental gaps.
Following the gene-editing process, the researchers took the hybrid embryos and implanted them into a surrogate female mouse. After observation, the researchers found that the embryos matured normally. Therefore, the initial research established a “proof-of-principle,” Wu said.
Since pig organs are similar in size to human organs, Wu’s team chose pig embryos as their next chimeric experiment. Like the mouse-rate chimera, the researchers deleted some genes in the pig embryos and replaced them with adult human stem cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells. Then, they implanted them in sows. After four weeks, the researchers removed and studied the maturity progress of the cells. While the human stem cells showed precursors to tissue, Wu said the “contribution” of human cells to the organism was low. Ultimately, much more research is needed.
The Hopes and Goals of Chimera Research
According to Wu, scientists envision using human-animal chimeras in several ways. For instance, researchers have long used lab animals to study human diseases and possible treatments. This type of research, however, could be greatly improved by creating lab animals with human tissue. In addition to studying disease, researchers are also intrigues by the prospect of using animals as organ hosts. As with Atwood’s pigoons, scientists are interested in growing human organs for transplant purposes. “We’re nowhere near that yet,” Wu stressed.
As scientists move towards these goals, ethical issues will continue to arise, regarding human and animal welfare. Ethical issues aside, it’s fascinating how pigs as human hosts was once a mere concept. Now, researchers are actually implanting human-pig embryos into pigs. Let’s just hope that Atwood’s speculation regarding the connection between genetic modification and the end of all human life won’t soon become a reality too.
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