Do Experiments With Animals Containing Human Genetic Material Freak You Out?

Over the summer, the U.K.’s Academy of Medical Science published a report discussing the ethics and regulations for experimentation involving animals containing human material. Such research is valuable in part because, as the AMS report synopsis says, it can “diminish the likelihood that animal findings will prove misleading, is to create embryonic or adult animals which incorporate human tissues within their bodies and are therefore, in certain defined respects, more like us.”

But as important as research into such chimeras can be, the public tends to get the willies when hearing about human-animal experiments. Accordingly, a recent editorial in Nature is discussing how to get the public to understand the reasons for ACHM investigations. The editorial says in part:

Given that negative public perception of science can influence research funding, it is of paramount importance that strong emotional responses to the integration of human materials and animals be countered by frank discussion of the regulations and goals of this area of research. … The lack of a full public understanding of the scientific purpose of why animals are made to contain human materials could, and does, fuel the misconception that scientists try these experiments simply because they can. 

Nature cites the example of 1997’s “earmouse.” The Vacanti mouse with the human-looking “ear” sprouting from its back prompted both animal rights activists and those opposed to genetic engineering to protest. The earmouse did not actually contain any human genetic material. Anyway, as Nature notes, just a small number of human genes would not transform a mouse or other lab animal. One way to avoid the public confusion over ACHM experimentation would be for scientists to avoid speaking about their ACHM experiments in a way that seemingly humanizes them.

The problem there, though, is that some observers, already paranoid about Big Science and cover-ups, could accuse researchers of hiding the nature of their work. 

What will really make the public more comfortable about ACHM work? A major breakthrough—a well publicized major breakthrough accompanied by clear explanations about how the human/animal hybrid made progress possible—could help calm people’s fears about unnatural chimeras walking among us.

Read more on Nature.