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First human-monkey embryos created – a small step towards a huge ethical problem

We believe monkeys to have lower moral status than humans – but what about human-monkey chimeras?

May 07, 2021 / 09:59 AM IST
(Representational image) Scientists created an embryo with a human stem cell and biological material taken from a macaque. The hope is that eventually these animals can be used for scientific research and harvesting organs for those in need of transplants.

(Representational image) Scientists created an embryo with a human stem cell and biological material taken from a macaque. The hope is that eventually these animals can be used for scientific research and harvesting organs for those in need of transplants.

Scientists have created the world’s first monkey embryos containing human cells in an attempt to investigate how the two types of cell develop alongside each other. The embryos, which were derived from a macaque and then injected with human stem cells in the lab, were allowed to grow for 20 days before being destroyed.

We have a term for this type of life form: a chimera, named after the fire-breathing monster of Greek mythology that was part lion, part goat and part snake. It’s hoped that part-human chimeras – essentially animal bodies with some human organs or other characteristics – might one day offer clues to help us treat human diseases, as well as providing organs to transplant to humans. But for these purposes, part-human chimeras will first have to be born, and this research takes us one step closer to that eventuality.

That’s ethically controversial, because these creatures could possess an ambiguous moral status: somewhere between that of humans, which we don’t tend to experiment upon, and animals, which we do. How we end up treating part-human chimeras will depend upon the moral status we assign them – a task that these latest embryonic experiments only makes more pressing.

Why make chimeras?