Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ribbit From the Headlines (aka Kneedeep in Controversy)

photo credit-Parksy1964
creative commons license

Amongst all the commotion regarding Savage things said by one individual, Neandarthal comments from a Canadian source, and initial forays into genetic testing for autism, one little story seemed to slip under the radar.

Human-frog hybrids reveal autism's secrets says the headline in The New Scientist magazine article.

Human-frog hybrids might reveal the neurological secrets of autism. By fusing cells from the preserved brains of deceased autistic patients with the eggs of a carnivorous African frog called Xenopus, scientists have started investigating the way the brain cells of people with autism behave. ...

The creation of chimeras, or combinations of two different species, is not new. But the creation of animal-human hybrids is a relatively new endeavor. In 2005 Dr. Eugene Redmond went to the Caribbean to implant human stem cells into the brain of African monkeys. He hoped to get those cells to produce dopamine, and lead to a cure for Parkinson's disease. In 2007 British regulators approved human animal hybrid creation to create new stem cell lines. And now this type of research is coming to California, with little fanfair.

...To see if abnormalities in neurotransmitter signalling also underlie autism, Miledi's team collected brain samples from six deceased autistic patients, aged eight to 39. They fused brain-cell membranes, which house neurotransmitter receptors, together with Xenopus egg membranes. As a control, they did the same thing with brain cells from patients with no history of mental disorder. ...

While some, like the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, issued cautionary statements regarding this type of research, it would appear that most of the public goes along with this type of research, "if it might improve understanding of diseases." The Danish Council on Ethics has a nice summary of some of the issues involved, including whether certain rights would accrue to such chimeras, whether such creations could be owned, and whether they could be killed.

Evidently there have been chimeras produced in the U.S. for some time now, but ethical questions (other than public discussions regarding human cloning) have largely been ignored.

I'm not positive that I might not change my mind in the future, but as of now, I would definitely count myself in the camp of being against chimeras, whatever the purpose. While I am sure that Peter Singer would approve, as he sees no difference between humans and other animals, I see a lot of potential problems with blurring the lines of what is human and what is not.

Another thing that bothers me about this is that perhaps autistic humans were chosen to do this because they were viewed as diseased and damaged, and not quite human anyway. Therefore anything would be okay with such a population. This was never stated anywhere, but just a nagging little thought at the edge of my consciousness.

I don't think that "the ends justify the means" in the vast majority of circumstances. Thus I don't believe that the results of unethical studies should ever be published, or used by other researchers as a basis for their own work. Too many scientists forge ahead to be the first in their field, and don't stop to consider whether what they are doing is right or not. I think the least we owe ourselves and our descendants is a full and honest discussion of the ethical concerns of such research. Just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean that we should.


Anonymous said...

When I read about chimeras I have fears of The Thing (from another world) arising out of some lab. (Or as the result of some non-verified biomedical 'treatments'.)


Anonymous said...

Actually, what they did is not a chimera, in a chimera you mix genes of different species to get a new organism. Here it seems to me that they are using a modification of an old technique used before to understand human proteins and cells.

Niksmom said...

No matter what they callit...I call it creepy!

But I love your witty title! ;-)

Mrs. C said...

What??? What??? Surely I read this wrong. Going back over it.

mumkeepingsane said...

Reading that makes me afraid on so many levels!

shiva said...

This sounds so much like some sort of crazed B-movie (or perhaps a Grant Morrison comic)...

"Attack Of The Killer Autistic Frog-Men!!!"

With regard to the last paragraph: actually, i'm not sure. There are many things that we know as a result of what the Nazis did as experiments in the concentration camps, which are genuinely useful to science and medicine today. IMO *both* the things that we know from such sources *and* the truth about the horrors of how they were found out deserve to be taught to future generations...

Club 166 said...

Thanks all for your comments.


If we "use" science that was obtained unethically, then there is less deterrent for future unethical science to be performed.

If scientists know that there results won't be published, and won't be used by other scientists (there work will be as if it did not exist), then they will not have incentive to do it in the first place.