News from Asia
Well, I hope everyone in the US had a lovely holiday weekend. It’s pretty hard to sit down and type right now, it’s absolutely gorgeous out.
A couple of stories out of Asia today. A short article in the Korea Times
reports that Hwang Woo-suk wants to resume stem cell research, no specifics given. It is not a surprise that he would want to continue doing what he has given so much of his life to—but will he get the opportunity? I doubt it. The Korea Times
also reports that the South Korean government has finalized a plan to spend 430 billion won ($454 million) on stem cell research over the next ten years. It will fund both adult and embryonic stem cell research, with an emphasis on ethics, stem cells’ differentiation mechanisms, establishment of a clinical test database, and a system to set up stem cell banks.
Much more interestingly, a research team in China has reported that it has transferred human stem cells into goat embryos. The article in Shanghai Daily
says that this is the first time this has been done. The research team transplanted stem cells from cord blood into 50 goat embryos; 39 of the goats had some human genetic characteristics in their blood and organs when they were born. The goats are now being raised on an experimental farm. This proves that stem cells can be transplanted from one organism to another without rejection. A professor at the Chinese National Human Genome Center said that the research is legal and ethical thus far; it would be illegal to implant animal organs with human DNA in human bodies, and Chinese scientists can’t use stem cells from embryos more than 14 days old (irrelevant in this case, since the cells were cord blood in origin).
This is not as new as it could be; the article was published on-line in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 8 and in print on May 16. (Full title is “Multiorgan engraftment and differentiation of human cord blood CD34+Lin– cells in goats assessed by gene expression profiling” for anyone who wants to read further.) A similar study
by the same team appeared in February 2005 in the European Journal of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology.
I am sure this is going to give some people the heebie-jeebies, although human cells have been cultured in lab animals in numerous other experiments. I haven’t found any news of it in any papers other than three based in China (two are the same story I linked to above, one is just a paragraph). I’m wondering why this hasn’t received full press play, given the nature of the story. I’m kind of relieved that there aren’t a lot of hysterical responses to it out there now, but it seems like it would be jumped on all over.
I think there’s a big yuck factor for many people in putting cells from one species into another, especially at the embryonic level, even though scientists routinely inject human cells into mice that have been genetically engineered not to have an immune system response. On the other hand, it wasn’t as though goat DNA were put into humans. Is there a risk that the goats might assume some human characteristics? I doubt it—our DNA is much more similar to a chimp’s than it could be to these goats.
It’s potentially scary because of the implications—it suggests that significant genetic engineering might not be that far from being realized. It’s also I think perhaps scary because it is a reminder that the human being is a permeable organism, easily invaded by viruses and bacteria, susceptible to cancer-causing mutations, quite frail in many ways. Everything is very delicately balanced, and it doesn’t take much to upset the balance.
Genetic engineering is going to happen—initially, to eradicate or cure congenital diseases and disorders. And then it will progress. Things will get blurry. Is altering a gene that causes schizophrenia or other personality disorders the same as altering a personality? Will being short be seen as a disability? What will be the difference between a disease and a lifestyle? There’s going to be a lot of hard thinking that has to be done. Is fragility and disease an intrinsic part of being human that shouldn’t be messed with, or should we try to make a better human and cure suffering wherever and however it occurs? I think these kinds of questions need to be asked now, ahead of the technology, so there is some cultural readiness when it comes.