Anna Krohn: So Genesis got it wrong, then…

18 Jun 2008

By The Record

A recent cover story in the New Scientist journal proclaimed: “It’s finally time to kiss goodbye to the idea that humans are qualitatively different to other animals.”

The article continued in sweeping triumph, that scientific research had finally ripped out the last objection to that quaint notion “ingrained for centuries” that we humans are anything special.
A few weeks ago, as if on cue with these sentiments, the British Parliament,  firmly supported by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, voted to permit the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos for research purposes.
Brown argued that such stem cell research “was an inherently moral endeavour” and one by the way needed “to keep Britain at the forefront of world research.”
So sold on the making Britain the “ruler” of the stem cell waves was the PM that Labour Cabinet Ministers who opposed embryonic research were required to make threats of resignation before they were given a “free vote” (similar to the Australian conscience vote) on matter. 
They joined a group of 176 parliamentarians who attempted unsuccessfully to move an amendment that would ban the creation of interspecies embryos.
In 2006 two scientific teams from King’s College London and the University of Newcastle made a controversial application to Britain’s biotechnology licensing body.
Their principle application sought to use existing embryonic stem cell techniques but using human DNA inserted into cow eggs (from which the nuclei had been removed) to create a new type of embryo.
Why on earth do this?
The researchers said that because cloning is so inefficient, many “precious” eggs are needed to create the human embryos (clearly not so precious) used in such destructive experimentation. 
It seems those pesky creatures, women, are neither efficient egg “producers” nor are they willing to hand over their ova in the quantities which meet the researchers “needs”. 
Cow or rabbit eggs can be re-claimed from the slaughterhouses and laboratories without much fuss.
In order to obtain embryonic stem cells and other information, the teams aim to fuse into existence, experimental embryos using the human DNA and animal eggs.
They argue that the proposed experiment is ethical because after all the embryos would be “mostly human” (does that mean just a tinsey bit animal?).
And furthermore, the creatures would be destroyed before 14 days of development- before they got old enough to see what might have really happened to them, or to scare the horses.
In controversial work with human embryos, the scientists and their lobbyists now commonly smooth the debate by employing new and unfamiliar names. 
Here the “mostly human” embryos are called “Cybrids” or “admixed human embryos.”
Central to the heavy lobbying by the research groups is also the now familiar enlistment of special interest charities for the disabled and chronically ill.
However 17 stem cell scientists warned in a Times advertisement that there was little evidence of any promise in using the hapless “cybrids”.  Even a public servant scientist in favour of the research said: “We have to be careful not to overhype it,  because we can’t promise anything will work.”
Those opposed to the creation of “admixed” embryos argue that it is simply bad science to describe the “cybrids as 99.9 per cent human.  We just don’t know.  The animal ova used process are not “just empty or passive” shells as claimed.
Mammalian eggs are the largest cells in the animal world – and they contain both DNA and small sub-cellular “organelles” which influence the metabolism and development of the new embryo. In the early stages of embryonic development it is the animal component of the egg cell that could well determine the engagement of the human DNA. 
The proposed process, based on “reductionist” biology, really does involve the crossing of the species line – and with it the deeply held ethical divide which respects not only the dignity of the human but the integrity of the rest of creation as well.
As Jeremy Rifkin, the outspoken critic of much of the bio-tech commercial enterprise, and neither traditionally pro-life nor Catholic, warns that we are gazing at a pathway to “a brave new world in which all of nature can be ruthlessly manipulated, but now with human-animal chimeric experiments we risk even undermining our own species’ biological integrity in the name of human progress.”