In a recent scientific breakthrough, U.S. researchers have managed to create chimeric human-pig hybrids using human-induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The research team published its work in Cell journal, describing how the team inserted human stem cells into early-stage pig embryos and implanted the embryos in surrogate sows to develop.
Scientists were astonished to find that they had generated human cells in the embryos. Scientists involved in the chimera experiment believe that further research can lead to lab-grown human organs – a potential boon to patients awaiting organ transplants.
However, because of ethical concerns, the embryos were terminated after 28 days.
Stem cell research has long been a controversial subject in U.S. politics. Despite the existence of stringent guidelines, many politicians have openly opposed the use of stem cells taken from human embryos, which can divide indefinitely and are pluripotent, meaning they have the potential to divide into many different types of cells. This includes growth in critical organs like the heart or the liver.
Just as a government operates on a system of checks and balances, the scientific community is kept under scrutiny by ethical norms that are largely influenced by an ever-changing political agenda. As a result of the embryonic stem cell controversy, scientists have turned to amniotic fluid and iPSCs, a form of adult stem cell that has been reprogrammed to become pluripotent, circumventing the need for embryos.
iPSCs were used extensively in the chimera experiment, and yet, despite all the potential good that further research can bring, the ethical concerns surrounding the chimera experiment still stand. We now know that iPSCs can be used to grow human tissue in a non-human organism, which to some people may sound like something straight out of a creepy science-fiction movie. Just the mere thought of hybrid human-pig hybrids developing more human brains is enough to make someone cringe or panic (Animal Farm, anyone?).
That is why any future experiments must be carefully thought out and well-regulated. The National Institutes of Health is planning to lift a moratorium on human chimera research, which could allow increased federal funding for these types of experiments. Any benevolent scientist who dreams of benefiting mankind must first have the support of mankind. For the chimera research team, this means minimizing public concern while respecting ethical boundaries.
While the scientific community is far from achieving its end goals with these chimera experiments, it must proceed with great care, diligence and caution. Pluripotent stem cell research could very well hold the key to lab-grown organs or a cure for cancer, but scientists must tread lightly as they wander into uncharted territory.
Israel Aragon is a sophomore majoring in psychology.