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Japan Approves Experiments Allowing Human-Animal Hybrids To Be Born For First Time

Dan 8 Aug 2019

Yes, you read that headline correctly. In Japan, scientists are now free to create human-animal hybrids, grow them to term, and see their creation come into existence.

Not surprisingly, it's full of ethical issues.

Are they playing god?

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Whatever your thoughts on this question, this ship sailed long ago. Whether we're talking about Dolly the cloned sheep or, more recently, lab-grown meat, science has long been able to take control of, and alter, life itself.

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The new frontier is human-animal hybrids.

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It's now a real possibility, thanks to advances in medical technology. But just because something is possible doesn't mean it's actually happening — and for it to happen, regulations and laws need to allow it to happen.

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What's the purpose of these hybrids?

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It isn't an Animorphs scenario. The true goal is a little more boring, and a lot more meaningful: creating organs, more or less from scratch, that can be used to transplant into human patients.

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How far have we come?

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There's a big difference between creating a hybrid embryo and actually seeing that embryo carried to term and birthed. Scientists have created these hybrid embryos, but haven't been allowed to bring them to term.

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Japan's move is a big one.

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Japan's science ministry has provisionally approved experiments that will not only create human-animal hybrid embryos, but also allow them to be born. Approval means scientists can theoretically start testing the feasibility of transplanting hybrid organs into humans.

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How's it work?

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It's all about mice and rats, the creatures most often experimented on in labs. Scientists will edit their genes so they can't produce a certain organ. Then, they'll take a fertilized egg from one of these animals and add human cells. Finally, they transplant these eggs into a rat or mouse that will eventually give birth.

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Some people have questions.

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"It is problematic, both ethically and from a safety aspect, to place human [cells], which are still capable of transforming into all types of cells, into the fertilized eggs of rats and mice," researcher Jiro Nudeshima said.

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Where does it all lead?

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While it sounds pretty freaky, we're not about to see human-sized rats, or vice versa. Researcher Hiromitsu Nakauchi said, "At that level, an animal with a human face will never be born."

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It's a new frontier in medical science.

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If this project yields big, meaningful dividends, we likely won't see them for years. But the prospect of growing organs for transplantation is an appealing one from a public health standpoint.

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What do you think?

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On one hand, science is amazing. On the other, this feels inherently weird. Let us know what you think of this story in the comments section!

h/t: The Asahi Shimbun

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