Research involving animal and human cells isn’t just the stuff of science fiction and fantasy anymore. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is proposing policies to make it easier to do research resulting in organisms that are both human and animal, often referred to as “chimeras.”
While it is an area of study with the potential to provide a better understanding of human diseases, according to U.S. Senators Mike Enzi (R., Wyo.), Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) and Bill Cassidy (R., La.), the research carries with it real world ethical questions. Recently the senators wrote a letter to NIH asking for more information about the proposal.
“We support the agency’s mission to prevent diseases and conditions and find new treatments and cures but the NIH also has a responsibility to uphold the values of the Americans who fund its research,” the senators wrote. “American taxpayers’ money funds the NIH, and we are concerned by the prospect of those dollars advancing research that goes beyond the bounds of responsible and ethical research.”
Chimera studies are experiments that introduce human stem cells into animal embryos. Currently, NIH is not funding any studies of that kind.
In order to better understand the proposed changes and their effects from both an ethical and scientific perspective, the letter requested more information on how the process would be administered and how serious ethical questions would be addressed.
Specifically they asked for NIH to offer more insight on where the ethical dividing line is between acceptable and unacceptable influence of human cells on an animal brain. They also asked how NIH will determine which projects are unethical before funding research goes too far?
In September 2015, NIH instituted a temporary ban on funding for research that proposed to introduce human pluripotent cells into animal embryos. A one-day workshop was held in November 2015 on the topic of chimera. On August 5, 2016, the NIH asked for public comments on a proposal to reverse the funding moratorium. The proposed changes included the creation of an internal steering committee to provide recommendations on funding certain types of chimera research. The comment period closed on Sept. 6, which the letter noted gave the public and experts “only one month to comment on a technical and controversial proposal.”