By Michael Mountain, Zoe: It's Our Nature
The face of pure innocence in a body created by laboratory researchers.
Researchers at the infamous Oregon National Primate Research Centre are applauding themselves for having basically “manufactured” a group of rhesus monkeys who were formed by sticking together embryos from up to six other rhesus monkeys who were in the early stages of their development.
The result is what’s a called a chimera – a mix of other animals. The word is also used to describe mythological animals like the half-human, half-equine centaur. And while scientists haven’t attempted to produce anything like that yet, this latest experiment is certainly a step in that direction.
Two of the three newborns are twins. All three are boys, but one of the twins, Roku, has a mix of male and female cells. What this means for his future development is unclear.
In fact, what the whole experiment means is unclear. While lead researcher Shoukhrat Mitalipov crows that “the possibilities for science are enormous,” the possibilities for the newborns are less certain. They each have six biological parents and one surrogate mother. They will grow up in a laboratory and will spend their lives, long or short, being experimented on. Or they will join the many other animals who died sooner or later as part of a long list of failed experiments.
Many of these experimental animals are simply killed before any research can take place. Others will die of malformations caused by the various genetic modifications. For the monkeys, that may be the best outcome since those who survive are destined for a life of suffering.
The research team proudly displays the results of their handiwork – babies bred for a life that will probably never even show them the light of day.
The first animal chimeras were produced in the 1960s from mice, and are routinely created in labs today. But this is the first successful experiment using primates. It’s unknown exactly how many failed experiments have led to deformed, sick animals who soon died or were destroyed.
The big worry among the ethics community is that all this will lead to the manufacturing of chimeric humans. That’s probably not going to happen any time soon. But what the ethics community never discusses is the ethics of conducting these experiments on nonhumans.
Reports state that initial efforts by Mitalipov’s team to produce living monkey chimeras by introducing cultured embryonic stem cells into monkey embryos “failed”.
Zoe Science Editor Dr. Lori Marino explained that this is a way of saying that lots of animals died.
“For people who experiment on animals, that language is just code for the deaths of multitudes of monkeys who did not survive the process,” she said. “And, given the quality of life for animals in laboratories, those that live may be the least fortunate ones of all.”
In 2009, more than 22,000 primates were shipped into the United States from overseas. Vivisection laboratories like the Oregon National Primate Research Center routinely pay more than $4,000 for a rhesus macaque like the ones used in these experiments. Last year, the laboratory had approximately 4,000 primates being held there.
The purpose of the chimera experiments is to learn more about embryonic development – like why a particular cell gives rise to a specific tissue. And the holy grail at the end of all this is to develop stem cells that can help grow human tissue and, ultimately, replacement organs – anything from a new leg to a new heart.
But what will be the cost of all this? When we gain a heart at the cost of so many innocent lives, do we also lose what’s left of our soul? That, after all, would be the worst sickness of all.