Less than a year after it imposed a ban on federal funding of experiments to create human-animal chimeras, the National Institute of Health (NIH) will reconsider its moratorium and potentially grant federal funds to such experiments as early as 2017.
Many scientists see chimeric embryos as valuable sources of medical research. In June, a group of geneticists from University of California, Davis injected human stem cells into gestating pig embryos with with the intent to grow transplantable human organs. Other researchers hope to use these embryos to study human diseases in animals, NPR reports.
“It’s very, very welcome news that NIH will consider funding this type of research,” Pablo Ross, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Davis, told NPR. Ross is one of the researchers attempting to grow human organs pigs. “We need funding to be able to answer some very important questions.”
Such research has also been controversial, however, with animal rights activists concerned about added animal suffering. Meanwhile, some experts are worried that the animals may develop human cognitive abilities or mature with human reproductive capabilities, which would open up a whole range of ethical issues.
“Science fiction writers might have imagined worlds like this — like The Island of Dr. Moreau, Brave New World, Frankenstein,” Stuart Newman, a biologist at New York Medical College, told NPR. “There have been speculations. But now they’re becoming more real. And I think that we just can’t say that since it’s possible then let’s do it.”
The NIH decided reconsider the issue due to the potential medical benefits, but they say they’ll put some measures in place to prevent the worst from happening. For example, in the newly proposed plan, federally funded research cannot be conducted on non-human primate embryos due to their close genetic relation to humans.
The American public is invited to comment on the matter within the next 30 days.