Monkey-human hybrid research renews concerns over PRC ethics
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) permitted a team of researchers to conduct monkey-human hybrid research that is banned or severely restricted in most other countries, El Pais, a Spanish newspaper, reported in late July 2019.
In a lab in China, a team led by a Spanish scientist claims to have produced the first human-monkey hybrid embryo by genetically modifying monkey embryos and then injecting one of the embryos with human stem cells that can become any type of tissue. The hybrid was viable and could have been born, but the researchers destroyed the embryo at 14 days of gestation, the point at which the embryo could develop a central nervous system.
The work, which follows a litany of other controversial research activities and practices by the PRC, was carried out in China “to avoid legal issues” and circumvent a ban on such work in Spain, the report said.
The research is yet to be validated by outside researchers or published in a peer-reviewed journal. Researchers, funded in part by the Murcia Catholic University in Spain, defended their work, asserting it could advance efforts to use animals to produce human organs for transplants and reduce organ rejection, El Paisreported.
Most other countries place strict controls over such experimentation to ensure the safety of the public and that ethical research standards are maintained. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, funds research using certain animal models containing human cells, or chimeras, such as mice with human cancer cells for testing therapeutics. However, in 2009, NIH banned stem-cell research that introduces human cells into nonhuman primate cells or into the germ line, egg or sperm cell production. In 2015, the agency placed a moratorium on NIH funding and introduced a framework, which is under review, to expand restrictions to cover stem-cell research on earlier embryos and all human cells that contribute to the germ line.
“NIH is committed to upholding the highest standards in scientific research and animal welfare. NIH views this proposed policy framework as a responsible way to provide additional oversight and new limitations in an area of research that is very promising, but which NIH thinks merits careful scrutiny,” an agency spokesperson said.
The PRC, however, continues to promote and fund research widely deemed unsafe and unethical, if not illegal, in other countries. Chinese scientists in April 2019 claimed in National Science Review, a relatively new journal published under the auspices of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to have introduced a human brain gene into monkeys, also by using gene-editing, or CRISPR, techniques. The animals reportedly exhibited short-term memory and shorter reaction times.
In November 2018, to the dismay of most geneticists worldwide, another Chinese researcher announced that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies, a set of twin girls whose genes had been modified with CRISPR techniques to protect them against HIV.
Many leading researchers condemned his work, saying implanting edited embryos to create babies is unethical and exposes the resulting children to unnecessary health risks, given that the technology is not mature enough to test in humans. U.S. law prohibits the creation of human embryos for research purposes or research that harms human embryos.
Immediately after the announcement, Feng Zhang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s and Harvard’s Broad Institute called for a worldwide moratorium on gene-edited babiesuntil researchers can devise safety standards, according to the institute’s website. Hundreds of Chinese scientists have denounced such work and called for greater oversight of CRISPR experiments.
(Pictured: A lab technician holds a gene-edited macaque, which was used to make five cloned monkeys, at the Institute of Neuroscience of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, China, in January 2019.)
If the Spanish team intends to take the monkey-human hybrid embryo research to the next level, allowing the chimeras to be born, the risk that human cells could wind up in monkey brains or sex organs, producing monkeys with human-like appearances or behavior, alarms many in the scientific community and in society at large.
“So, there are some animal welfare issues as well as the ‘yuck-factor’ ethical issues from making something more human,” Dr. Robin Lovell-Badge, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, told The Guardiannewspaper. “Clearly, if any animal born had aspects of human appearance, their faces, their hands, their skin, then I suspect, while scientifically very interesting, people might get a little upset with that.”
“In the U.K. [United Kingdom], any proposal to make human-monkey chimeras would have to be very well justified, and it would have to get through a very tough review process,” Lovell-Badge said. “I am sure that any proposal to go straight to live born chimeras would not get approval in the U.K. and probably not also in Japan.”