The ancient Greeks once spoke of a creature known as a satyr, a humanoid figure with the legs of a goat and the torso of a man. Of course, this creature does not exist, but what if we could make something similar?
The idea is amazingly not out of the realm of possibility. The US has already created such embryos, but due to ethical concerns, never allowed them to be brought to term, and Japan, just last year, approved the creation of human-animal embryos.
One’s thoughts may wander towards Hollywood films such as Planet of the Apes, or Splice, but the reality is much less terrifying. The real reason they want to produce these embryos is to implant them into surrogate animals, which would then give birth to animals that hopefully have transplantable human organs.
Now, I’m sure the practice would have animal-rights activists up in arms, shouting and screaming in packs up and down the streets, but one cannot ignore the potential in this research. No longer will your loved ones dying from lung cancer have to wait dishearteningly long periods of time for a possible donor; they’ll be able to have a new set of lungs grown relatively quickly within the body of an animal and have them transplanted. Donor lists would be a thing of the past, and many families would be saved from the torment associated with watching a loved one go through such a difficult process.
Does this sound like science fiction? In 2017, Hiromitsu Nakauchi, the lead scientist of a team researching human-animal hybrids at the University of Tokyo and Stanford University in California managed to create a rat embryo that lacks the genes required to produce a pancreas. They then injected a mouse’s iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells- can become almost any cell-type) into the embryo of the rat, which then went on to become a rat with a mouse’s pancreas. Using a mouse with diabetes, they then transplanted the rat’s mouse-pancreas into the mouse with diabetes and found that the rat-produced mouse-pancreas was able to regulate the blood-sugar levels of the mouse effectively, just as if it were born with it.
So the process works, in rats and mice anyways. Why not try it in humans? The problem lies in how similar the DNA is between the animals in question. Between a rat and a mouse, genetic differences are negligible, but between an animal such as a sheep or pig, and a human, the differences are much larger. Even though a pig is 84 per cent similar, and a sheep is 91 per cent similar to a human, those differences are enough to cause most human cells injected into either embryo to be destroyed due to the natural growth processes of the embryos in question.
But back in August 2019, a human-monkey hybrid embryo was produced in China by a team of Spanish researchers from Murcia Catholic University for the very same purpose: to produce human organs in a non-human creature.
The same approach was also used: Remove the genes responsible for organ growth in the monkey embryo, and inject the human iPS cells into the embryo. Though the results were “very promising” the embryo chimeras were only allowed to gestate for 14 days, after which they were destroyed to avoid any problematic outrage by the community.
And to some, the possible outrage is well warranted.
Why you may ask? What could possibly go wrong?
Well, a number of things. For one, the iPS cells may migrate to the area of the embryo where the brain develops. If the monkey embryo were to develop human neural pathways as a result of the foreign iPS cells, the resultant man-ape could possibly have a conscious awareness similar to that of a human.
Maybe Planet of the Apes wouldn’t be such a far-fetched Hollywood idea after all.