Internet searches for the word “chimera” have spiked the past few days on news that scientists had successfully combined the DNA of two disparate species into one viable embryo. The resulting embryo, called a “chimera,” lived to four weeks and represents a huge step for those with the goal of growing replacement human organs in the lab. The ultimate hope for this advancement lies in providing an unlimited source of human organs for those in need. Perhaps being able to grow a human organ inside a lab animal who simply acts as a host might eventually be of some merit. I’ve personally been against all of this most of my life, but perhaps this new technology and way they are now going about it is worthy of reconsideration. In case you didn’t know, scientists have been attempting for several years to grow the organs of one animal inside the body of another. This time around it might be a bit different… Creating the chimeric embryos takes two stages: First, CRISPR gene editing is used to remove DNA from a newly fertilized pig embryo that would enable the resulting fetus to grow a pancreas. This creates a genetic void. Then secondly, human stem cells are injected into the embryo. To be clear, the stem cells were derived from adult cells. Not embryonic. Again, adult tissue is used to get adult stem cells. From here, the human embryo should fill the genetic void left by CRISPR gene editing and allow it to grow a human pancreas. The embryo is implanted into the sow and allowed to develop to 28 days. It is hoped that the resulting pig fetus will have a human pancreas. From there the hopes is the same technique could be used to grow other human organs. Understand, they haven’t created a full human pancreas in a pig. But it is the first time that human cells have grown inside a different species. It’s also important to know that the development of the pig chimeras was stopped after four weeks in the womb, so the fetuses aren’t taken to full term. These are experiments that prove, in principle, that it can be possible to grow human tissue in a completely different species. From what I’m understanding, scientist would ultimately like to take stem cells from a patient needing a transplant, let’s say a liver, inject them into a pig embryo which had the key genes deleted for creating a liver, add in the new, with the resulting organ being an exact genetic copy of the liver needed, just simply a much younger and healthier version. As I can imagine, “attempting to duplicate nature is not an easy endeavor,” said Dr. Jun Wu, a staff scientist in the gene expression laboratory at the Salk Institute and first author of the research, “species evolve independently, and many factors dictating the developmental programs might have diverged, which makes it difficult to blend cells from one species to a developing embryo from another.” Wu also said, “The larger the evolutionary distance, the more difficult for them to mix.” In the past, human-animal chimeras have been beyond reach. Such experiments are currently ineligible for public funding here in the United States, so the Salk team has had to rely on private donors for their chimera project. Public opinion has also hampered the creation of organisms that are part human, part animal. Ethical concerns lead the outcry from most opponents, “In particular, people were concerned about human cells populating the brain of the animal or the germline of the animal,” said Carrie D. Wolinetz, the institutes’ associate director for science policy. In the first case, the animal might be humanized; in the second case, the animal might pass human genes on to its offspring. The is certainly going to be a tough debate moving forward and one I suspect gets extremely heated. On the flip side, data shows that every ten minutes a person is added to the “wait list” and every day twenty-two new individuals die while waiting for the organ they are in need of. Again, the goal of the project is that one-day human done organs can be more readily available for all patients in need. (CNN, Merriam-Webster).

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This undated photo provided by the Salk Institute on Jan. 24, 2017 shows a 4-week-old pig embryo which had been injected with human stem cells. The experiment was a very early step toward the possibility of growing human organs inside animals for transplantation. (Salk Institute via AP)