The goal of the project is to farm human organs within animals to create a supply of organs that can be used for transplants.
There are so many concerns about this experiment that it’s hard to know where to begin. One of the biggest worries is that scientists could lose control over how much of these animals become human. For example, their brains could develop in a way similar to those of people.
There’s also the possibility that the procedure could transmit new viruses from animals like pigs to humans via the human organs grown inside of the animals.
The leader of the project, Professor Hiromitsu Nakauchi, thinks that it’s possible to grow a human pancreas by placing stem cells in a pig or other mammal; this pancreas could then be used to cure a human with diabetes, at least in theory. Human stem cells are essentially blank cells that can transform into anything.
Of course, this type of cell can’t just be placed in any animal. Instead, it will have to be genetically modified first to ensure that it lacks the cells that its body would use under normal circumstances to form the organ in question. The animal’s body will then use human cells to form the organ using human tissue instead.
It gets worse from there: The embryo will then be implanted in the womb of an animal. The baby will grow to full term like usual before being killed so the human organ can be removed and transplanted into the human who needs it.
In the past, the Japanese government did not allow embryos made in this fashion to grow to full term, but the new decision gives Nakauchi and other scientists freedom to pursue this unsettling quest. France, the U.K. and Germany have banned the practice of placing human stem cells in animal embryos. While the U.S. does not specifically prevent this from being done, the National Institutes of Health placed a moratorium on funding this type of work in 2015.
Although Professor Nakauchi’s team has stated they would end their experiment should any of the animals’ brains become more than 30 percent human, it’s doing little to allay public fears over the plan.
He told Stanford Medicine’s Out There magazine, “We are trying to ensure that the human cells contribute only to the generation of certain organs. With our new, targeted organ generation, we don't need to worry about human cells integrating where we don't want them, so there should be many fewer ethical concerns.”
His team has already used the method successfully on rodents, with 2017 research outlining how they worked in conjunction with scientists from Stanford University to implant a functional pancreas that had been grown in the embryo of a rat who could not produce the organ. After the rat formed a pancreas that was made of mouse cells, it was transplanted into a mouse who had been engineered to have diabetes. After treatment to prevent the organs from being rejected, the pancreas in question started producing insulin normally and kept the mouse’s blood sugar levels under control, effectively curing it of diabetes.
It’s frightening to imagine where all this is leading. The scientists want to create an unlimited supply of organs for transplants, which is certainly an admirable endeavor, but how many animals and people will suffer and die along the way? Blurring the lines between what is human and what isn’t sounds like a recipe for disaster, not to mention the many ethical questions surrounding harvesting the organs of non-consenting human-animal hybrids.
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