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November 8, 2006 3:44 PM   Subscribe

When headlines go wrong: Is a human/cow hybrid really the alternative to controversial stem cell research? Some scientists at Newcastle University apparently think so. Still, is using animal eggs with human genes a whole other ethical can of worms, or just a convenient workaround?
posted by JMOZ (43 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
The general principle, unbreakable or at least never yet broken, is that whatever people can do somebody somewhere will do. Somebody will bring one of these creature to term. Somebody will breed a race of human-animal slaves. We are absolutely not known for self-restraint.
posted by jfuller at 3:52 PM on November 8, 2006


I'd advise steering away from that one, no point in stampeding toward unknown consequences, but the point is probably moo t. Progress will be cowed by no man.
posted by stenseng at 3:58 PM on November 8, 2006 [4 favorites]


Could someone explain to me, like I'm nine years old, what is so bad about human cloning?

I can see the ethical problems that might arise from blurring the line between humans and non-humans by creating hybrids, but cloning? Surely our society have survived despite the existence of identical twins, and clones would just be identical twins who are not the same age, right?
posted by spazzm at 3:58 PM on November 8, 2006


Who's talking about human-animal slaves, dude? These will be embryos with fullly human genes; the only difference will be the structure of the egg cell.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:59 PM on November 8, 2006


As much as I had thoughts of The Island of Dr. Moreau, I would bet the biologists amongst us will tell us that these embryos are very unlikely to be viable. At least, I hope they'll tell us that.

The other thing I thought of was the cow in Douglas Adams' Restaurant at the End of the Universe who consented to be eaten. All we need is to alter the genetics of our cow/human hybrids to be suicidal?
posted by JMOZ at 4:00 PM on November 8, 2006


Right. A hybrid that combined human and bovine genes wouldn't be viable. But that's not what these are. If you read the first link, you'll see their genes will be entirely human. The cow's contribution will be an ovum with its nucleus — and all its genetic material — removed.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:03 PM on November 8, 2006


spazzm

Religious idiots think that it's "playing God" and "creating men without souls" and etc.

That said, I don't see any particular reason why it should be done, either. We have too many people on this planet as it is.
posted by Target Practice at 4:04 PM on November 8, 2006


Yeah, because selling half-man, half-cows is going to be SO much easier to sell than destroying embryos. I'm not saying that there would be actual ethical issues with it, but certainly one hell of a marketing challenge.
posted by ontic at 4:04 PM on November 8, 2006


Thanks for pointing that out, nebulawindphone.

Let me reprase the question I put earlier, of yours and Target Practice's comment:

Could someone explain to me, like I'm nine years old, what is so bad about human cloning and putting human DNA into non-human ovum? Won't the offspring have all-human DNA and effectively be human.
posted by spazzm at 4:19 PM on November 8, 2006


spazzm: People are idiots. I was in a class discussing cloning, and a disturbing number of students couldn't understand how one person could be in two places at once or how you would still live if your clone died. Sigh.
posted by null terminated at 4:20 PM on November 8, 2006


Why buy the milk when you can create a cow-human hybrid and fuck that for free?
posted by mathowie at 4:22 PM on November 8, 2006 [2 favorites]


> Right. A hybrid that combined human and bovine genes wouldn't be viable.

without further modifications, not available (this year.)
posted by jfuller at 4:27 PM on November 8, 2006


And yet I get so much grief for turning my nephew into hamburger and feeding him to the family.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:30 PM on November 8, 2006


They're just trying to breed a whole generation of human-bovine hybrid that they'll eventually use as the basis of soylent green! They look human but taste like delicious beef!
posted by clevershark at 4:33 PM on November 8, 2006


null terminated: I guess the sort of ignorance you describe is fueled by popular media stereotypes of identical twins, e.g. hit one and the other feels the pain, etc.

Maybe we shouldn't be trying to make more identical humans, but smarter humans?
posted by spazzm at 4:36 PM on November 8, 2006


clevershark- as opposed to tasting like chicken?
posted by JMOZ at 4:40 PM on November 8, 2006


Everything else tastes like chicken... it's too common, really. You expect a premium meat like human to be more refined!
posted by clevershark at 4:42 PM on November 8, 2006


I don't know what the rest of you are doing, but I'm putting my human/bovine hybrid in the middle of a giant maze on a Greek island and sacrificing fourteen Athenian adolescents to it each year.
posted by quite unimportant at 4:55 PM on November 8, 2006 [2 favorites]


ontic : Yeah, because selling half-man, half-cows is going to be SO much easier to sell than destroying embryos. I'm not saying that there would be actual ethical issues with it, but certainly one hell of a marketing challenge.

I'm not so sure that's the case. If you distill down the argument that people against stem cell research use, it always seems to be the standard pro-life party-line: life begins at conception. Generally these folks don't take issue with fertility clinics who routinely discard the less viable eggs in favor of one that is likely to implant. In many respects, this is following along those lines.

I think they would be hard pressed to identify a piece of skin cell implanted in a genetically stripped cow egg as 'conception'. But I've been wrong in the past.
posted by quin at 4:59 PM on November 8, 2006


Could someone explain to me, like I'm nine years old, what is so bad about human cloning and putting human DNA into non-human ovum?

Well, I think it taps into very deep fears of creating monsters, a la Frankenstein. Cow eggs aren't designed to carry human DNA. I think very possibly the deepest fear is bringing one to term... allowing its brain to develop enough to become 'human'... but, yet, not be viable over the long term. The suffering of such a creature is abhorrent to consider.

On another level, you have people worrying about a new form of enslavement... again, the thing being, these are people, not just 'things'. For the religious crowd, this is very much playing God, and since many of them believe in souls starting at conception, they think of embryos being destroyed as murder.

(why they allow fertility treatments, which involve the creation and destruction of many, many embryos, is beyond me.)

From my limited understanding, I would consider there to be two main moral issues. First, a fetus should never be allowed to develop enough of a brain to even get close to being 'human'... I'd be uncomfortable with much of anything past the brainstem. Second, I'd like to see the only cell lines used to be ones that GOT a chance at life... that is, they split and both implant and store a bunch of embryos for a year. They only keep and continue to use cell lines of babies that successfully gestated and were born.

I'm not sure exactly WHY I'm more comfortable with that, but I'd like to know that the cells we're working on in the lab were given a chance at life. As long as there's a real baby out there somewhere, living and breathing and loving like all other humans, I wouldn't have any problem with stem cells derived from it being used for research. Just don't let it develop much of a brain.

Of course, then you might get into ownership issues...the baby obviously didn't consent to have its cells used that way. When the baby grows up, should it have veto power over use of the cell line? Does it get a share of the profits, if any? If you wouldn't exist without these techniques in the first place, does being given life count as renumeration?

So it's not simple, but I'd still prefer to know that the healthy cell lines in labs are all derived from humans that got a fair shot at the life thing.
posted by Malor at 5:05 PM on November 8, 2006


Astro Zombie : And yet I get so much grief for turning my nephew into hamburger and feeding him to the family.

That's what was in those burgers? I was going to chastise you for your cannibalistic ways, but I gotta admit; for a dead guy, you flip a mean nephew-burger.

I'm gonna need to get that recipe from you.
posted by quin at 5:19 PM on November 8, 2006


Spazzm: the problem is that although the chimeric embryo will have almost completely human DNA, all the other stuff in the cell outside of the nucleus will be bovine. That means all the regulatory proteins and RNA molecules that control how the genes in the nucleus are expressed will NOT be human.

I would guess that this incompatibility would mean that the embryo would not develop very far before it ran into problems and died.

If, somehow, it got to the point where there were a few hundred cells, then presumably most of the proteins and RNAs would now be human, anf the embryo would be, to all intents and purposes human. In that case, I would say that there is little difference between this technology, and cloning a human being using a human egg to receive the DNA. Any problems would, as far as I know, be social not biological.

The social problems will be big ones, however. Just look at the gay marriage 'debate' to see how bigotry holds sway in our society. Hell, how long have negroes been allowed to vote in the USA?
posted by nowonmai at 5:21 PM on November 8, 2006


I love the totally non-inflammatory picture in this news article on the subject, and wish I could post it to this thread.
posted by nowonmai at 5:21 PM on November 8, 2006


Stenseng, you are to be slapped, gently but with steely resolve.
posted by CynicalKnight at 5:37 PM on November 8, 2006


I find it amusing/confusing that people have emotional attachments to cells, or worry about cell lines getting a chance at life, or being killed. We're talking about cells. You shed skin cells all the time. You happily exterminate incredible numbers of cells with disinfectants. Cells don't have feelings.

I'm also not sure why people expect human chimeras to be used as slaves. What economic need are these slaves supposed to fill? It's not as though humans are so scarce that labor is very expensive. From the standpoint of an evil slave-owner, hiring some poor slob from a third-world country is hardly more expensive than owning a slave, and you don't even have to clone them ---they reproduce in the wild! Anyway, machines are often cheaper and more reliable for highly automated tasks, so I hardly see a need for a high-tech workforce that's engineered to be stupider than most humans.
posted by Humanzee at 7:11 PM on November 8, 2006 [1 favorite]


Some risks of cloning:

We don't understand what causes aging and cancers. What if, because of some biotechnical wrinkle now unknown, these cloned people had a 20 year lifespan or were doomed to die of metastatic cancer at age 25?

Cloning implies cell culture. What if unknown viruses proliferate there? Retroviruses could incorporate themselves into the embryo and cause problems, especially if the clones are intended for use as spare parts; other viruses could simply use a cloning lab as a fertile environment.

What if a person's DNA were harvested illicitly, and a clone of them made, in order to tailor/engineer a biological or virological attack to their person? Is this an ethical reason to create a human being? Is this an ethical thing to do in general?

What if laws were passed denying clones the full rights of human beings? There's no particular reason this couldn't come to pass, unless you believe that legislators are incapable of making wrong-headed decisions.

What if an error were made during some part of the process, and the clone was defective - missing a limb, mentally retarded, etc.? Right now when this happens it's often an "act of God," i.e. nobody's fault. However, how do you handle it when it actually is somebody's fault?

And that's not even touching the problems you get to when you contemplate intentional modification of the genome.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:22 PM on November 8, 2006


Apart from sudden urges to graze, a small percentage of Newcastle therapy patients may exhibit unusual side effects: lamassus, minotaurs, and, um, milk [NSFW].

Not to go on All-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not men?^
posted by cenoxo at 7:40 PM on November 8, 2006


What if, because of some biotechnical wrinkle now unknown, these cloned people had a 20 year lifespan or were doomed to die of metastatic cancer at age 25?

That's a risk all people run - there's no guarantee that babies conceived in the usual way have a long an healthy life. Besides, the animal clones created so far have been healthy.
(Yes, I know Dolly died relatively young. But that was most likely due to pampering and a sedate lifestyle.)

Cloning implies cell culture. What if unknown viruses proliferate there? Retroviruses could incorporate themselves into the embryo and cause problems, especially if the clones are intended for use as spare parts; other viruses could simply use a cloning lab as a fertile environment.

That sounds a bit farfetched - I'd expect viruses to spread easier in an actual human population, what with bodily contact and all that, than in a sterile lab. Are there any actual examples of this?

What if a person's DNA were harvested illicitly, and a clone of them made, in order to tailor/engineer a biological or virological attack to their person? Is this an ethical reason to create a human being? Is this an ethical thing to do in general?

That's ridicolous. Instead of spending all that time and money on hurting someone, why not just spend $.50 on a bullet or run them over in the shopping centre parking lot?

What if laws were passed denying clones the full rights of human beings? There's no particular reason this couldn't come to pass, unless you believe that legislators are incapable of making wrong-headed decisions.

That would require that the law specifies what, exactly, makes clones different from identical twins. Also, what Humanzee said on this subject.

What if an error were made during some part of the process, and the clone was defective - missing a limb, mentally retarded, etc.? Right now when this happens it's often an "act of God," i.e. nobody's fault. However, how do you handle it when it actually is somebody's fault?

The same way we handle medical maltreatment now.

And that's not even touching the problems you get to when you contemplate intentional modification of the genome.

We've been modifying genomes for ages - that's what we essentially do (albeit arguably on a subconscious level) when we select our breeding partners. You know, Love.

Generally, science-fiction "what if" scenarios should not be allowed to stand in the way of real science with the potiential to help large numbers of sick people.
posted by spazzm at 8:11 PM on November 8, 2006 [1 favorite]


What if laws were passed denying clones the full rights of human beings?

Let me rephrase my reply to that by posing a similar question:
What if laws were passed denying triple-bypass patients the full rights of human beings?

Should we refrain from heart surgery because of that possibility?
Is this scenario any less likely than the one ikkyu2 painted?
posted by spazzm at 8:32 PM on November 8, 2006


We're talking about cells. You shed skin cells all the time. You happily exterminate incredible numbers of cells with disinfectants. Cells don't have feelings.

I don't think that's a very good argument. You're made of just cells, but if I injure some of your cells enough that the rest of them die, that's "murder".

At some point, those 'just cells' become a human being, and where that line should be drawn isn't exactly clear. It seems to me that letting all researched cell lines gestate is the most human thing to do. It's just a potential human as a blastocyst, but it would be nice to let that potential come to be if we can. That way, it's quite difficult to argue that anyone is being murdered, since you can point at a baby in someone's family. If they've been born, you're just working on a high-tech equivalent of their fingernails.... if they haven't, it's their entire existence.

Seems to me that doing that would dodge a good chunk of the nastier moral issues. You'd still have ethical issues about property and IP rights, but IMO those are quite solvable with some intelligent debate/discussion.

spazzm: but note also that our selection process has evolved along with everything else. We're obviously very good indeed at evolving, since we've come this far. Substituting the tiny bit we know with our rational minds for the immense amount we've evolved to know instinctively could easily lead to very dramatic problems. If people are crippled from our genetic modifications, we've committed a heinous crime. It's an area in which we need to tread most carefully.

I'm glad we're doing the research, and I think the Bush position is insupportable, but it's not as simple as you paint it.
posted by Malor at 8:41 PM on November 8, 2006


We're obviously very good indeed at evolving, since we've come this far. Substituting the tiny bit we know with our rational minds for the immense amount we've evolved to know instinctively could easily lead to very dramatic problems. If people are crippled from our genetic modifications, we've committed a heinous crime. It's an area in which we need to tread most carefully.

Indeed.
But it is an area where we will almost certainly need to thread, sooner or later.
Evolution and genes may be permanent fixtures of our reality in the same way gravity and fire is - facts of life, laws of nature. But that doesn't mean we should slavishly accept the role these forces cast us in - just as we have harnessed fire and circumvented gravity, we should take charge of our own evolution.

But, yes, we need to be careful.
posted by spazzm at 9:13 PM on November 8, 2006


You're made of just cells, but if I injure some of your cells enough that the rest of them die, that's "murder".

But there's a difference between a non-sentient clump of cells that will not become anything unless it's implanted into a womb, and a conscious person with hopes, dreams and memories, no?

It's just a potential human as a blastocyst, but it would be nice to let that potential come to be if we can. That way, it's quite difficult to argue that anyone is being murdered, since you can point at a baby in someone's family.

There are some problems with that line of reasoning:
First, it won't satisfy the fundies - they can argue that you've murdered the identical twin of the living baby.
Second, it still leaves in the implicit assumption that a clump of cells have inherent 'potential' to become a human being and therefore is, in a sense, a human being. Sperm has the same potential - does this mean masturbation is murder?
What's the rationale behind the notion that cells gain their humanity at the moment of fertilization?
Third, we're killing large numbers of embryos as part of fertility treatment - how is that any different?
posted by spazzm at 9:30 PM on November 8, 2006


Instead of spending all that time and money on hurting someone, why not just spend $.50 on a bullet or run them over in the shopping centre parking lot?

Because they're not in the parking lot. They're in a hardened bunker or an 'undisclosed location.'
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:48 PM on November 8, 2006


As spazzm points out, there's no way that any human can possibly respect all possible future life. What we can do is respect the feelings of entities who are capable of feeling. No one deserves to be born, we're just born. As a society, we can try to limit the suffering and further the happiness of those who are born. Those who worry about the feelings of a clump of undifferentiated cells are anthropomorphizing, plain and simple. If you want to utilize your empathy in a productive manner, restrict your concern to those creatures that have a functional central nervous system.

I don't claim to see all ends ---perhaps there are legitimate ethical concerns with cloning and/or stem cells. If so, they certainly aren't driving debates though. What's really causing the conflict is a viewpoint that the actual suffering of existing people is outweighed by the anthropomorphized suffering of emotionless matter. The kicker is that these potential lives will never be lived out anyway, because nobody wants them.
posted by Humanzee at 9:57 PM on November 8, 2006 [4 favorites]


The Kansas state senate seems to be OK with it. Obvioulsy, they didn't watch the State of the Union.
posted by notswedish at 10:09 PM on November 8, 2006


Oh, for the State of the Union link, read the 10th paragraph from the bottom (11th if you count 'God bless America' as a paragraph).
posted by notswedish at 10:10 PM on November 8, 2006


Meh. Youse can have your Frankenstein stem cells.

Here down under, the Australian Senate just passed a bill lifting the ban on stem cell cloning.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:13 PM on November 8, 2006


I don't favorite a lot, but I'm favoriting the shit out of Humanzee above post.

I can only wish I could be that concise and eloquent on this topic.
posted by quin at 10:43 PM on November 8, 2006


"Stenseng, you are to be slapped, gently but with steely resolve."


Glad someone noticed my genius tucked away amidst all the bull in this thread...
posted by stenseng at 11:01 PM on November 8, 2006


Whoops: Humanzee = Humanzee's

Yeah, it's late.
posted by quin at 11:10 PM on November 8, 2006


I think that science should not be scrutinized as much. Religious leaders and so on might bemoan stem cell research, but do they even have a clear idea of what it even is?

At first the issue was stem cells from abortions. As if the only thing to do with them is just incinerate them. You may or may not agree with the practice of abortion, but what's done is done. Might as well get some use out of the by-product, even if it is a practice that is unethical.

Science is at the point where it has the potential to advance human evolution rapidly and greatly extend the length and quality of our lives and derive a much greater understanding of what life even is.

It is possibly that unraveling of the secrets of life that makes religious leaders nervous, possibly because they aren't entirely convinced of their faith and are worried that scientists could provide answers they don't like.

Science is in essence the quest for knowledge and understanding of all things, perhaps some are afraid of what science may discover.
posted by jdm2006 at 1:33 AM on November 9, 2006


Clones have already taken over Poland

People hear "cloning" and imagine "breeding machines producing thousands of Hitlers" rather than "more identical twins".
posted by alasdair at 3:59 AM on November 9, 2006


The general principle, unbreakable or at least never yet broken, is that whatever people can do somebody somewhere will do. Somebody will bring one of these creature to term. Somebody will breed a race of human-animal slaves.

This word, unbreakable, I do not think it means what you think it means. I can think of dozens of scenarios that are doable and yet, no one has done them. Why? Because it's not cost effective.

Simillarly, why would I want to go to all the trouble of developing the technology and then breeding, feeding, raising and training and housing a race of unproven hybrid slaves? I'll just hire a bunch of people, pay them minimum wage and use a debased education system and Fox news to condition them to believe what ever the hell I want them to believe. No pesky research, no raising, feeding or housing, and no one will ever have to clean up a gaint hairball in asile five.

While a race of subservient ani-men makes for great science fictions (and by great, I mean hokey, really tired and kind of trite) it's not the sort of thing that's going to be very apealing to anyone who doesn't have a really weird fetish.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:11 AM on November 9, 2006


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