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Making Manimals

William Saletan

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If you've been laughing at those Neanderthal presidential candidates who still don't believe in evolution, it's time to sober up. Every serious scientist knows we evolved from animals. The question now is whether to put our DNA and theirs back together.

We've been transplanting baboon hearts, pig valves and other animal parts into people for decades. We've derived stem cells by inserting human genomes into rabbit eggs. We've created mice that have human prostate glands. We've made sheep that have half-human livers. Last week, Britain's Academy of Medical Sciences reported that scientists have created "thousands of examples of transgenic animals" carrying human DNA. According to the report, "the introduction of human gene sequences into mouse cells in vitro is a technique now practiced in virtually every biomedical research institution across the world."

Why have we done this? To save lives. If you can't get a human heart valve, a pig valve will do. If you can't get human eggs to clone embryos for stem cell research, rabbit eggs will do. If you can't use people as guinea pigs in gruesome but necessary experiments on human tissue, guinea pigs will do. All you have to do is put -- or grow -- the human tissue in the guinea pigs. You're free to inflict any disease or drug on a human system, as long as that human system lives in an animal.

In stem cell research, moreover, human cells are the therapy. Under FDA rules, they must be tested in animals before they're tested in people. That means implanting them to see how they change the animals. Meanwhile, we're using hamster cells to make a human protein to treat anemia. We're using mice to make humanized antibodies that produce cancer drugs. We've grown human kidney tissue in rats.

So far, our mixtures are modest. To make humanized animals really creepy, you'd have to do several things. You'd increase the ratio of human to animal DNA. You'd transplant human cells that spread throughout the body. You'd do it early in embryonic development, so the human cells would shape the animals' architecture, not just blend in. You'd grow the embryos to maturity. And you'd start messing with the brain.

We're doing all of these things.

Read the entire article on the Washington Post website (new window will open).

Posted: 03-Jul-07



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