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Mice with human brains?

November 8, 2011

As we speak, the state of Mississippi is deciding whether a human embryo is legally a “person.”

Meanwhile, the European Union has ruled that embryonic stem cells cannot be patented, because they have the potential for personhood. At least, I think that’s what they said; in the embryo business, words become slippery objects. What I want to know is, if skin cells can be “reprogrammed” into embryonic stem cells, then does my dandruff have personhood? How does the skin cell finding “end ethical dilemmas”?

And in case anyone missed this one, we hear that in the UK 150 human animal hybrids have been created with embryos. As one peer said, “It discredits us as a country. It is dabbling in the grotesque.” I don’t know, though, we could do worse than giving humans chimp immune systems, which are stronger than that of humans.

But don’t worry, we’re still banning mice with human brain cells.

Why not? What do you think: If it would help us cure Alzheimers or ALS, why not give mice human brains?

  1. November 9, 2011 12:25 am

    This may have something to do with this recent surge of interest in vampires, werewolves, and zombies. What are the limits of being human and humane? Should you turn into a monster to live forever? Or what if society turns you into a monster?

    I think most of us want to be human. That might mean there are certain ways we need to die, just to remain human.

    To be honest, mice with human brain cells bother me, but that’s mostly because I think that most researchers understand mice psychology so poorly that any research results that come out of such systems are likely to have problems when translated into human medical treatments.

  2. paws4thot permalink
    November 9, 2011 8:57 am

    Para 3 is based on a Daily Wail story. How much credibility would you extend to a story on Faux News?

  3. SFreader permalink
    November 9, 2011 10:25 am

    Would this line of research be easier to swallow if it read: adding/splicing animal traits onto human embryos? Consider that a popular SF scenario for enabling humans to travel/migrate to other planets/solar systems is to gen-engineer them, i.e., ant’s ability to carry 10 times its own weight, a salamander’s ability to regrow severed limbs, a bear’s ability to hibernate, etc .

  4. November 9, 2011 12:33 pm

    From a science fiction perspective, it would certainly be interesting to envision ant-like ability to carry objects. A working scientist, though, wonders how we get from here to there. What if the mouse with human brain cells gains some kind of human consciousness, trapped inside a mouse?

    At the bench, we’re still some distance from there. Here is a research article on human-cow hybrid embryos:

    Here is some research trying to make human stem cells from animal eggs:

  5. November 9, 2011 1:54 pm

    Thing about Alzheimer’s, for one example, is that it destroys memory. That’s devastating for us humans, because so much of who we are as organisms is learned behavior. For a mouse, I’m not sure what it means. How much of mouse-iness is predicated on learned behavior? This is why I’m a little skeptical of putting human neurons in a mouse brain as a path to a cure. If something gets rid of plaques, but still devastates memory, it’s not terribly useful.

    On a separate note, Mississippi voted their “personhood” law down, so we don’t have to worry about that just yet (if ever).

  6. SFreader permalink
    November 9, 2011 2:44 pm

    The how-to for animal-human hybridization will be figured out at some point and is in the domain of research scientists. The why-do-it-at-all along with the consequences or pursuing/not pursuing this line of research is where the general public can contribute.

    Why people are afraid of this line of research needs to be identified/labeled, and each fear addressed. (And, I don’t mean laughed off.)

    A short list of fears/motivations:

    1-“More intelligent animals will become our competitors”: In addition to their current survival advantages (whatever they might be), they’ll now have the smarts too. This suggests that test animals have very long ‘species’ memories and would want pay-back. Considering the average life span of a lab rat is about 2-3 years, and live in isolation (in labs), I don’t understand this fear. Also, like GMO plants, animal/human hybrids will probably be (made) barren/sterile. This fear is real – it’s the same fear that humans have had regarding every new liberty/civil right for other human beings not of their clan/race/gender going back thousands of years. Ironically, just having this fear suggests quite a lot about people.

    2- “Each species has a destiny, and who are we to interfere with it”: The root of this argument is the notion of a divine agency with specific carved-in-stone long-term plans for each species. Considering that species are constantly emerging/evolving/dying off, this fear is hard to buy. Plus, all life forms (plants, animals, viruses, etc.) have been tweaking each others’ evolution for eons. And I’m not sure that humans have been quicker than other animals in effecting changes in other species. (When did ants first learn to herd and milk aphids?)

    3-Recognizing and “uplifting” (as per David Brin) other potential sapient species may make us a better, more benevolent species. Mentoring new species would be very time-consuming, resource-intensive, gutésoul-wrenching, etc. It’s bad enough having your teenager sass you, imagine getting attitude from a whole species. And, once they grow up – will they leave home, will they move into the basement and play video games all day? Will we be able to count on them to look after us in our golden years?

    • November 9, 2011 7:32 pm

      Correction: GM organisms aren’t sterile. In plants, some of them don’t breed true. Some are fully fertile. In one case, you can get sued by Monsanto for patent infringement if your field of soybeans gets some pollen from plants that have their genes.

      That’s another problem right there: who profits, and how do they control their profits? I don’t know what’s profitable about making a chimera, but being sued for having sex with one (or letting your pet have sex with one) is about where we are legally.

      There are bigger problems. Basically genomes (especially in eukaryotes such as ourselves) are horrible cases of spaghetti code (see the Wikipedia entry if you don’t know what that is), which is why decoding them takes so long. Combining two cases of sphagetti code into something that works is a non-trivial exercise.

  7. Petter permalink
    November 10, 2011 5:26 am

    I dont understand what is controversial about this. The research isnt banned its just not possible to patent it, which probably makes the economic incitement to do it decrease substantially and it wont go as fast as it might have done otherwise.
    Definitely worth it to avoid my grandchildren having to pay royalties to montesani for getting children of their own..

    • paws4thot permalink
      November 10, 2011 5:42 am

      I’ve already published the statement that “I hereby and herenow claim copyright on my DNA, and all derivitive works”.

    • November 10, 2011 9:54 am

      I agree, I don’t see a problem with not patenting cell lines. In the future, particular cell lines are unlikely to be of interest except for the one patient they’re designed for. What really should be patented is the process involved in making and/or using the cell line.

      What is more problematic is the line of reasoning, if this is what they said: ““capable of commencing the process of development of a human being just as an embryo created by fertilization of an ovum can”. There are huge problems with that statement. Wouldn’t it be arguably true of a chimp embryo?

      • Petter permalink
        November 11, 2011 2:52 am

        Indeed. As our knowledge and technology progresses it would probably be true for any eukaryotic DNA, then any DNA, then any aminoacid and after that any of its atoms.

        It’s hard to find any sharp rational borders here..

  8. SFreader permalink
    November 10, 2011 9:22 am

    Heteromeles – Thanks for the correction.

    Since all of the flower seed packets I’ve purchased in the past 4 years have produced only sterile flowers, perhaps only seeds likely to be purchased in commercial quantity (by individuals worth suing) are left unsterilized. Or is there some nutritional consequence/requirement to leaving food grains whole (non-sterile)?

  9. November 10, 2011 6:36 pm

    I’m not sure what’s going on with your flowers, without structurally looking at them. Offhand, I don’t know of a technology to allow you to produce seeds that produce sterile plants, but I’ll admit my ignorance. Do your plants require hand pollination, or a pollinator that isn’t present in your garden?

    As for the not breeding true, that’s the case with corn. Most of the hybrid corn sold these days was created by pollinating a highly inbred maternal line with pollen from a highly inbred different paternal line. The offspring are highly productive, but they don’t breed true. This is classic Mendelian genetics, nothing more.

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