Approach Frankenstein experiments gingerly, says UK report

Michael Cook
23 Jul 2011
Reproduced with Permission

Mixing human and animal material should be approached with great caution, says the UK Academy of Medical Sciences in a report issued yesterday. But it recommends that some highly controversial experiments should be allowed to proceed, including modifying an animal's brain to make it more human-like and the generation or propagation of functional human germ cells in animals.

The report, Animals Containing Human Material, was written after an extensive public consultation. This showed that people who understood something about the science were broadly supportive, but they still had misgivings about research which could alter animals' brains, appearance or reproduction.

The report contains a long chapter on the ethics of ACHM research which treads a fine line between pleasing people who privilege human dignity and people who advocate animal rights. (It even contains a discussion of H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) In the end, it backs the research on utilitarian grounds: "Our conclusion is that this work does not give rise to principled new concerns which provide reasons for curtailing it, and indeed that it offers the prospect of reducing the use of primates and similar animals in damaging experiments such as toxicity tests."

The report, which is likely to be adopted by the UK government, discusses three categories of research. Most ACHM experiments require no additional scrutiny in the UK, which already has stringent laws on animal experimentation. Some will need scrutiny by a new national expert body. This category of research includes some unsettling experiments such as modifying animal brains or growing human germ cells in animals, making animals look more human and adding human genes to non-human primates.

However, there is a third category of work which should be banned - at least for the time being. These include allowing human-animal embrhyos to develop more than 14 days, giving non-human primates a capacity for human behaviour by modifying their brains, and breeding animals which could give birth to humans or true hybrid embryos.

In an editorial Nature, a strong supporter of ethical animal experimentation, praised the report because "it will reinforce Britain's reputation as an attractive research environment, strictly controlled but without unwarranted hindrances". - ScienceInsider, July 21; Nature, July 21