The birth of half-human, half-animal chimeras
The quest to create animals with human organs has a long history – and it is now becoming a reality. Has science taken a step too far?
By David Robson
Jan 5 2017
In H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, the shipwrecked hero Edward Pendrick is walking through a forest glade when he chances upon a group of two men and a woman squatting around a fallen tree. They are naked apart from a few rags tied around their waist, with “fat, heavy, chinless faces, retreating foreheads, and a scant bristly hair upon their foreheads.” Pendrick notes that “I never saw such bestial looking creatures.”
As Pendrick approaches, they attempt to talk to him, but their speech is “thick and slopping” and their heads sway as they speak, “reciting some complicated gibberish”. Despite their clothes and their appearance, he perceives the “irresistible suggestion of a hog, a swinish taint” in their manner. They are, he concludes, “grotesque travesties of men”.
Wandering into Doctor Moreau’s operating room one night, Pendrick eventually uncovers the truth: his host has been transforming beasts into humans, sculpting their bodies and their brains into his own image. But despite his best efforts he can never eliminate their most basic instincts, and the fragile society soon regresses to dangerous anarchy, leading to Moreau’s death.
It is 120 years since Wells first published his novel, and to read some recent headlines you would think that we are veering dangerously close to his dystopic vision. “Frankenstein scientists developing part-human part-animal chimera,” exclaimed the UK’s Daily Mirror in May 2016. “Science wants to break down the fence between man and beast,” the Washington Times declared two months later, fearing that sentient animals would soon be unleashed on the world.
The hope is to implant human stem cells in an animal embryo so that it will grow specific human organs. The approach could, in theory, provide a ready-made replacement for a diseased heart or liver – eliminating the wait for a human donor and reducing the risk of organ rejection.
These bold and controversial plans are the culmination of more than three decades of research. These experiments have helped us understand some of the biggest mysteries of life, delineate the boundaries between species, and explore how a ragbag bunch of cells in the womb coalesce and grow into a living, breathing being.
With new plans to fund the projects, we are now reaching a critical point in this research. “Things are moving very fast in this field today,” says Janet Rossant at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and one of the early pioneers of chimera research. “It’s going to open up a new understanding of biology.”
That is, provided we can resolve some knotty ethical issues first – questions that may permanently change our understanding of what it means to be human.
For millennia, chimeras were literally the stuff of legend. The term comes from Greek mythology, with Homer describing a strange hybrid “of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle”. It was said to breathe fire as it roamed Lycia in Asia Minor.