September 26, 2022

Spanish and US scientists go to China to create human-monkey chimeras

What about the ethics?

LATE FLASH! In a stunning example of evading ethical controversy by exporting it, Spanish and American researchers have created monkey-human chimeras in China. The hybrid embryos will be destroyed after they develop a central nervous system and will not be brought to term.

The experiment is ethically risky. What if the human stem cells develop in the monkey brain and become conscious? What if they become sperm or egg cells? Although the researchers, from The Salk Institute, in California, and Murcia Catholic University (UCAM), brush off these fears, they are legitimate and widely-shared.

“We are doing the experiments with monkeys in China because, in principle, they cannot be done here,” Estrella Núñez, of UCAM, told El Pais. “What we want is to make progress for the sake of people who have a disease”. She says that if “if human cells migrate to the brain, they will self-destruct.”

This experiment, which hit the English-language press only today, is very similar to the Japanese experiment announced earlier this week (see below in BioEdge) in which researchers will create human-mouse chimeras.

Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, a leading British stem cell scientist told The Guardian: “I don’t think it is particularly concerning in terms of the ethics, because you are not taking them far enough to have a nervous system or develop in any way – it’s just really a ball of cells.”

However, he acknowledged that the experiment was controversial. “In the UK, 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,” he said. “I am sure that any proposal to go straight to live born chimeras would not get approval in the UK and probably not also in Japan.”   

Letitia Meynell, of Dalhousie University, told Gizmodo that it was “really depressing to see the willingness of scientists to engage in research tourism when the ethical standards of their home country make it impossible to conduct that research there. Certainly, these are ethically controversial issues. However, scientists who are willing to flout the ethics of their home countries and institutions should see themselves as obligated to make the ethical case for what they are doing.”

No details of the experiment have been released.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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