Saturday, December 31, 2005

Dr. Moreau

We've all, probably, heard of Genetically Modified Foods:

What are Genetically Modified (GM) Foods?Although "biotechnology" and "genetic modification" commonly are used interchangeably, GM is a special set of technologies that alter the genetic makeup of such living organisms as animals, plants, or bacteria. Biotechnology, a more general term, refers to using living organisms or their components, such as enzymes, to make products that include wine, cheese, beer, and yogurt.

Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be "genetically modified," "genetically engineered," or "transgenic." GM products (current or in the pipeline) include medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibers.

Ok, so what happens when we start using Recombinant DNA Technology on animals? Or, have we already?:

Two firms seeking a patent on an embryo cloning process have denied accusations by Greenpeace that they are creating "human-pig'' hybrid embryos, as the debate over 'therapeutic cloning' continues.

Reuters reports that according to Greenpeace Germany, the European Patent Office in Munich has received a patent application (No: WO99/21415) from US-based BioTransplant Inc. and Australian firm Stem Cell Sciences which allows for the production of human/animal embryos.

"The application shows that the firms have already transferred cell nuclei from human fetuses to egg cells from pigs and cultivated the resulting embryos for around a week in the laboratory," Greenpeace said in a statement.

"Society should not reward these Frankenstein scientists with patents," it added.

Chief executive officer of Melbourne-based Stem Cell Sciences, Peter Mountford told Reuters that his company had indeed put a human cell nucleus into a pig's egg. This nuclear transfer method involves scraping the nucleus out of an egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus, which contains most of the genetic material, from another cell. The process, if done correctly, re-programs the nucleus and it starts to divide as if it were a fertilised egg. In effect, it regresses back to the very first stages of life.

These cell masses could be a source of embryonic stem cells, which have the power to become any type of cell in the body at all, including nerve cells, blood cells or organ cells. Stem Cell Sciences said it had shown last month that this could be done, using mice.

The same technique was used to create Dolly the sheep, the first cloned adult mammal however in this latest case, Stem Cell Sciences, working with a team at Monash University, has used a pig's egg cell and the nucleus from a human cell.

After the nuclear transfer the cells divided, 4 or 5 times, to create a mass of either 16 or 32 cells. Mountford said the experiment proved that human and animal cells could be fused for the purpose of therapeutic cloning.

The researchers expressed aim is to find alternatives to organ donation, however as to the whether they are making human/pig hybrid embryos, it seems to be a matter of semantics.

"The application clearly asks for permission to patent a process enabling the transfer of a nucleus from one species into another species and the production of a transgenic embryo, , and there does not appear to be any restriction on whether the donor or recipient cell is human," science legal expert Dr Dianne Nicol from the University of Tasmania told ABC Science Online.

"It depends on what you define as a human embryo."

It depends on what the definition of "is," is. Such will be the questions of the future. How will we define what it is to be human? Who is human and who is not? How do we treat one who is only part-human? Less than half-human?

And, is not a "person" who contains the remnant of humanity in his behavior more human than a fully human being who behaves like an animal?

This post is, admittedly, alarmist in nature. I write it this way not because I expect our moral challenges to be drawn in such crude terms, but because the big black lines around the cartoon drawings of a comic book sometimes serve to express futuristic ideas better than discussion about nuances that have yet to be established.

The truth is, ever more subtle shades of "is-ness" will define what it is to be a human being. Questions of semantics will become more important in helping us retain what we will stand on the precipice of losing.

In the end, words may be all that will remain of our humaness. The words that tell our story, and nothing else.

Thanks to Eyes All Around for sending me the article on the human/pig embryo.