Human Stem Cells and Pig DNA

On 5 May this year, the Observatorio Bioética of the Catholic University of Valencia published a thoughtful article by Justo Aznar (which you can read in English here) that neatly summarises some of the medical and ethical problems posed by the creation and use of chimeras. Today’s BBC report of work being undertaken in the U.S. to grow human organs inside pigs by means of gene editing simply highlights how far medical research has progressed towards the creation of animal-human hybrids.

I don’t pretend to have the scientific, philosophical or theological skills necessary to discuss this matter in any depth, but there is one question I think we can all legitimately ask and that is: how far can we justify the kind of risk-taking such research involves on the grounds of its potential benefit? I imagine most people would say that organ transplants are a good thing in themselves because they enable us to cope with diseases that would otherwise kill us or condemn us to a lifetime of painful treatment. But there are so many unknowns in the work currently being undertaken that we do not know what we might be unleashing. Does that impose any limits? Does the fact that we can do something necessarily mean it is right to do it? I suspect I may not be the only person waking up this morning and wondering whether we are closer than ever before to a nightmare of our own making — a nightmare we didn’t intend or foresee. What do you think?

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8 thoughts on “Human Stem Cells and Pig DNA”

  1. This raises so many questions, does it not?
    What is it that makes us human? Our soul or our physical body?
    Should we try to prolong life if a part of the human body breaks irreparably? Or should we conclude that God has willed that this should be the end?
    Do we regard the start of human life as being at the moment of conception, even if that means leaving a pregnant mother to die because her unborn baby’s heart is still beating even though the baby is too premature to be delivered? Or do we take a broader view, and if so, where do we set the boundaries?
    Do we go to the other extreme and say that all research is worthwhile and that ‘the man who never made a mistake never made anything’?
    Do we press on with research because of the need to justify the funding we receive, and the fear that if we do not get there first someone else will?
    What I think we must do is to pray sincerely that the scientists involved in this research are men and women with a conscience and a serious willingness to say ‘no’ if they are asked to use their skills in the wrong way.
    Dear Digitalnun you have really set me thinking this morning! Thank you.

  2. I have to agree whole heartedly with you.

    Transplants are one thing, but the manipulation of genetics does seem to me to be at the least dubious and at the worst a step of man and science to put itself in our Creator’s place.

    I don’t deny that medical science has huge benefits in seeking ways to cure chronic diseases, but somehow, the artificial creation of organs, chimera or people is a step to far.

    Manipulating creation in this way should be banned.

  3. It distresses me to say it, but history has demonstrated that if scientist discover that they can do something then they will. Sometimes this has had wonderful effects, such as the discovery of insulin.

    Sometimes it has devastating effects, such as atomic and nuclear bombs.

    As far as I can tell from my reading of history, scientists are motivated to do it first. Their argument goes like this, “Now that we all know X is possible, sooner or later someone is going to do it soI might as well be the one to do it because otherwise someone else will do it and get all the glory.”

    While there is some sort of logic there, I have never credited scientists with a sense of ethics. As far as I can tell, consideration of the consequences, effects upon humanity, etc. are never a consideration. Just look how antibiotics have been thrust upon us without decades of testing. In less than three generations, we have been over-dosed upon them and now a superbug, resistant to antibiotics has been discovered.

  4. Sadly, I agree with the previous poster’s opinion that if we can do something like this, we will do it. There will always be tthose who will cross the boundaries without asking the important ethical questions.

  5. I am not sure that the last two comments clearly maintain human exceptionalism, when expressing the wholly natural and utterly right repugnance of treating what is human as material, like the lampshades made of human skin in camps in Jersey, it is easy to dismiss the tequniques used which do have a licit and legitimate place, with other tissues.
    This is at least as old as Jacob in Genesis.(I personally am very doubtful about tricksy cleverdick Jacob’s account of his selective breeding techniques with his tricksy uncle and fatherinlaw laban’s Lifestock, and in fact as in all his life the Almighty was looking after him as aloving father but he could nt resist the temptation to look out for number one with plans plots and schemes, but that doesn’t effect the main point.)Just as , in early mesopotamia maybe five milenia ago Jacob used techniques to greatly improve the portion of Laban’s flocks he tended and was to recieve, from the dawn of agriculture and animal husbandry , traditional selecvtive breeding tequniques until yesterday have given us all our massive array of crops and livestock that even now feed a thousand for every one that could be fed from the original stock, all the heritage from previous generations’ toil and care, as right and proper thing for the sons of Adam, sons of God, princes over the earth , and the stewards of Creation, to do, no less than with modern cellular tequniques
    And it would have been wrong in natural law and so understood even by pagans, to selctively breed humans ,( Yes I believe slave owners have occasionally had this temerity, but defer to historians on the point)
    Not here, but I am so fed up with hearing “playing God ” used as an accusation by purportedly Catholic Gaia worshippers and strident antihuman greens about genetic engineering AS SUCH, with plants and livestock.
    It most certainly CAN be used un wisely, we are sinners, just as tradition was used to produce some maneating breeds of dog, and being quicker and more far ranging and puting more power in fewer hands requires the same jump as the moral nous quanta jumping from knives and spears to bullets and modern war.
    Rats are there for our use, one way or another, Killing babies for organs, directly or indirectly cries to heaven for vengeance.I am doubtful about the theology of allowing distant benefits from such mortal sin the benefit og the doubt, as in vaccines.( The practical point: if all believers HAD rejected such vaccines, the markey would have produced different vaccines, aborting, that is murdering, babies providescheap , but not necessary , short cuts.)
    They arebound to be mucking around with the human genome , as someone rightly comments , because they can. But we need to think as clearly as possible about our arguments, and rely on the Lord.

  6. I once assisted in a classroom lesson for 12 year olds on genetic modification. Two overexcited lads wanted to know whether we could, like, genetically modify humans to give them cows heads, like, wouldn’t that be cool…

    Now, teacher-minded me strongly suspected I was being prodded for a reaction. But it is a great case study in the scientific challenges and ethics.

    1. “Ugh! Why would you want to do that? What would be the purpose? Imagine those poor cow-humans. They’ve a cow-weight head too heavy for a human neck to support, the wrong teeth for a human diet, no way to communicate, and a brain that belongs in a cow and doesn’t understand. That’s not cool! It’s horrible! There are regulations to stop people doing anything yucky like that for its own sake!”
    +
    2. “Imagine the technical difficulty. You’ve got to find every single gene associated with a human head, and replace it with the ones for a cow head. Except, the gene that does fluffy cow fur for the head, would probably do it for the entire body. And the human veins in the neck wouldn’t know how to connect to a cow head. You can’t just genetically graft them together. It would be like trying to get OSX to run on a Windows computer… ”

    More relevant to the topic at hand. I opted out of studying modules on biomedical engineering because I’m squeamish, and because I can’t quite reconcile my religion, perspectives, and all the morals and ethics involved.

    However, I don’t see a huge amount wrong with attempting to grow new transplant organs for people in a petri-dish, from their own genetic material. To the best of my understanding the main benefit of this is that when the transplant happens, there would be less need for immune-system-suppressing-drugs that current transplant patients have to take their entire lives. Outside my Jehovah’s Witness friends, I don’t encounter many arguments against transplants. The trouble is that correctly formed human tissue does not spontaneously form into a lovely ready-to-transplant organ in a petri-dish. It needs the right balance of nutrients, the right body systems around it, the right genetic triggers at the right times. Designing a bioreactor system to grow tissue to do all this is a horribly complicated engineering control challenge.

    Alternatively you could use a pig. In this case, the pig is your bioreactor. It naturally provides the right things to grow your tissue. It’s a bit like a surrogate mother for the organ. Or the eggs we use to grow vaccines in. Or, indeed, the pigs we use to create insulin to treat diabetes today. So, you learn how to make an organ in a pig, and then one day, maybe you can do it in a more pig-like petri-dish.

    I’m still not sure where Jesus would stand on this one, but I do think the slippery slope here has very little to do with genetic engineering.

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