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June 26th, 2017

Insight

Island of Dr. Moreau: It's Not Just Fiction Anymore

Greg Crosby

By Greg Crosby

Published Feb. 24, 2017

Island of Dr. Moreau: It's Not Just Fiction Anymore

Gather 'round, children, and I will tell you a tale so spine-tingling that it makes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein monster seem like just another character from "Paw Patrol." The reason it's so very scary is the simple fact that it is not a work of fiction; it's absolutely for real. God help us.

If you prefer not to read horrifying things, stop now. Move on to other columnists or just take a walk around the block or something. But for the morbidly curious, read on, but don't say I didn't warn you. Ready? Here goes.

Recently, just in the last couple of months in fact, scientists announced that they have created the first successful human-animal hybrids. The project has proven that human cells can be introduced into a non-human organism, survive, and even grow inside a host animal, in this case, pigs. This "scientific achievement" has been called remarkable and controversial. An understatement if ever there was one.

There are noble intentions for this scientific advance, namely to be able to address a critical shortage of donor organs for people needing transplants. The idea is that organs can be actually grown and harvested from living host pigs that can be used for human patients. This is achieved by introducing the human cell into the pig while it is still in an embryonic state. As the embryo continues to grow inside the womb, so does the human cell. Eventually the pig/human is born and there you have it. Custom-made organs that can be transplanted into that particular human.


It all sounds so wonderful, especially for those who have loved ones waiting for badly needed transplants. But all good intentions aside, there are definitely moral and ethical aspects to these experiments. Dr. Frankenstein was accused of "playing God" with his experiments in life and death. Are these new developments of crossing pigs with humans that far away?

It also reminds me of another famous science fiction story, H.G. Wells' "The Island of Doctor Moreau." For those unfamiliar with that classic novel, it centers on a shipwrecked man who winds up on the island home of Doctor Moreau. Unhappily for him, Moreau is involved with creating human-like hybrid beings from animals via vivisection.

The doctor kept grotesque combinations of human and animal creatures in various forms of development on the island. The novel deals with several philosophical and ethical themes, including moral responsibility, human identity, and human interference with nature. Wells described the novel as "an exercise in youthful blasphemy."

When you create an organism that contains cells from two different species it's called a chimera. Originating from Greek mythology, a chimera was a fire-breathing she-monster having a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail. Other mythological part human, part animal chimeras, which come to mind, include Centaurs, Minotaurs, and Fauns.

The scientific definition of chimera is an individual, organ, or part consisting of tissues of diverse genetic constitution; A hybrid created through fusion of a sperm and an egg from different species. The Salk Institute is leading an international team of researchers in creating these modern day chimeras, i.e. human-animal hybrids.

There are two ways to make a chimera. The first is to introduce the organs of one animal into another-which can be risky because the host's immune system may cause the organ to be rejected. The other method is to begin at the embryonic level, introducing one animal's cells into the embryo of another and letting them grow together into a hybrid creature, and this is what is being done, creating, in effect, a pig/man.

Many people have cheered this scientific breakthrough as the answer to having a ready supply of possible organs on hand for those who require them. I can't argue with that. If someone in my family needed a transplant to live and that was the only way, I guess I'd go along with it. I'd do it to save my loved one, but that doesn't mean it's the moral and ethical thing to do.

Let's face it, something feels very wrong in all of this. It's creepy monster stuff. What if one day future scientists decide to take this thing a step further? What if they go beyond using the host as an organ bank and allow a creature made up of human and pig cells to grow and live as a new being? And once it begins, where does the experimentation stop?

Porky Pig was cute and funny in the cartoons, but would you want to live with a real life pig/human character walking upright in a coat and bowtie without pants on?

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