NIH Announces Plans for new Rules for Funding Chimera Research (Human-Animal Mixtures)

As reported by Science, today the NIH announced plans to lift a preemptive year long moratorium on funding chimera research – that which mixes human and animal cells, often at the embryonic stage.

Here is a snippet from the Science article about the new proposed NIH process:

According to two notices released today, NIH is proposing to replace the moratorium with a new agency review process for certain chimera experiments. One type involves adding human stem cells to nonhuman vertebrate embryos through the gastrulation stage, when an embryo develops three distinct layers of cells that then give rise to different tissues and organs. The other category is studies that introduce human cells into the brains of postgastrulation mammals (except rodent studies, which won’t need extra review).

These proposed studies will go to an internal NIH steering committee of scientists, ethicists, and animal welfare experts that will consider factors such as the type of human cells, where they may wind up in the animal, and how the cells might change the animal’s behavior or appearance. The committee’s conclusions will then help NIH’s institutes decide whether to fund projects that have passed scientific peer review.

The devil will, of course, be in the details. It will be interesting to see how much NIH takes a more categorical approach as opposed to more case-by-case rule making like in the Institutional Review Board or ESCRO setting.

The last week of my soon-to-launch Harvard X free online course Bioethics: The Law, Medicine, and Ethics of Reproductive Technologies and Genetics covers chimeras and other animal-human hybrids. As I say there this is a very heterogenous category intellectually. It includes, depending on the definition of chimera, everything from Jesse Helms (who had a pig valve transplant), to mice with humanized immune systems, the proposed (but never created) human neuronal mouse which would have developed a brain with human neuronal embryonic cells, to the fictional apes in Planet of the Apes.

As I discuss in the course, my own view is that this an area where knee-jerk reactions are unfortunately typical. Such reactions often fail to theorize more fundamental questions like: are species boundaries metaphysical or conventional lines? What is the moral significance of a species as opposed to an individual in a species? What would concepts like “flourishing” mean for entities that had both human and non-human elements? What is the right role for disgust or repugnance in bioethical decision-making? And many more.

My own favorite short primer on this terrain, which I often assign in courses (and we workshopped at HLS years ago) is a chapter in this volume by JLB co-editor Hank Greely.