Britain’s Academy of Medical Sciences has launched an imaginative new study – on the use in research of animals containing human genes or cells.
“This area of science has had very little public discussion, though it has been scientifically very important and has led to some important medical advances,” says Martin Bobrow, the Cambridge University medical geneticist who will lead the study.
Animals containing human material – mostly transgenic mice with genes of human origin – are used routinely in laboratories world-wide. They have enabled researchers to make groundbreaking advances in understanding the causes and devising treatments of disease.
However, increasingly powerful methods for introducing human material into animals, including new stem cell technologies and ways to transfer many genes together, will present new opportunities and significant regulatory and ethical challenges in the future.
Recent examples of research involving animals containing human material include: rhesus macaque monkeys that carry a human form of the Huntington’s gene which allow scientists to investigate the development of the disease; mice with brains containing up to 25 per cent human neurones; and mice with human-like livers in which the effects of new drugs can be studied.
The new study is, in a sense, the converse of the debate in the UK last year about “hybrid embryos” that were essentially human but with some added animal material, says Prof Bobrow. “Now we are talking about animals with human bits added to them. We are not going to talk about hybrid human embryos again. Nor are we going to discuss the principles of doing research on animals.”
Launching the study at the Science Media Centre in London, the academy’s working group members said they did not personally know of any particularly objectionable research projects under way or being planned.
Robin Lovell-Badge of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research said the type of future experiment that might arouse particular public opposition included ones that gave animals a partially human appearance. “If you had human-like eyes, features, hands or feet, that might be upsetting,” he said.
Prof Bobrow said he was open-minded about how the study would proceed over the next 12 to 18 months. “We will not only be focusing on the ethical dimensions of this research but also on how it is perceived by the public,” he said. “Do these constructs challenge our idea of what it is to be human? It is important that we consider these questions now so that appropriate boundaries are recognised and research is able to fulfil its potential.”