Scientists Create Embryos Who are Part Human, Part Monkey for Dubious Research

Bioethics   |   Micaiah Bilger   |   Apr 15, 2021   |   4:26PM   |   Washington, DC

Scientists are pushing new ethical boundaries with human-animal experimentation.

On Thursday, an article published in the journal “Cell” describes how an international team of scientists created embryos that were part-human and part-monkey, or chimeras. The researchers used the embryos to explore the possibility of growing organs for people who need organ transplants

Speaking with NPR, several U.S. scientists raised ethical concerns about the new experiment, but another bioethicist defended the research for having “lofty humanitarian goals.”

But the means are not always justified by the end goal.

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Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a California scientist who co-wrote the study, said they want to address the problem that there are not enough organ donations for people who need transplants, according to the report.

“The demand for that is much higher than the supply,” said Belmonte, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences.

Their research, a team project with scientists in China and other parts of the world, explored whether human pluripotent stem cells would grow in monkey embryos.

According to NPR:

The researchers injected 25 [human stem] cells … into embryos from macaque monkeys, which are much more closely genetically related to humans than are sheep and pigs.

After one day, the researchers reported, they were able to detect human cells growing in 132 of the embryos and were able to study the embryos for up to 19 days. That enabled the scientists to learn more about how animal cells and human cells communicate, an important step toward eventually helping researchers find new ways to grow organs for transplantation in other animals, Belmonte said.

Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University and Harvard University, defended the experiment, telling NPR that thousands of people die every year in the U.S. because they cannot get an organ transplant.

“It’s aimed at lofty humanitarian goals,” Hyun said.

But other scientists were troubled by the ethics of human experimentation.

“I think the public is going to be concerned, and I am as well, that we’re just kind of pushing forward with science without having a proper conversation about what we should or should not do,” Kirstin Matthews, a scientist at Rice University, told the news outlet.

Some noted the slippery slope of human experimentation and how far it could go, such as trying to “make a baby out of an embryo made this way. Specifically, the critics worry that human cells could become part of the developing brain of such an embryo — and of the brain of the resulting animal,” according to the report.