Eight years ago, Dr. Stuart A. Newman, a professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, applied for a patent on a humanzee, a hypothetical creature that would be half-human and half-chimpanzee. After much delay, his application was rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In truth, Newman now says, he was only trying to make the point that we have not thought long enough - or well enough - about the biotech future that quickly is becoming our present reality.
Science & Theology News' web editor Matt Donnelly asked Newman about chimeras, humanzees and whether religious people should be concerned about a proliferation of human-animal mixtures.
What is a chimera?
To biologists, a chimera is an animal that is part one kind, part another, at the cell or tissue level. This distinguishes it from a hybrid, which is a blend of two species in every cell of its body. An example of a hybrid is a mule, which is the offspring of a male donkey and female horse. Since a mule results from a fertilization event, each of its cells contains equal amounts of horse and donkey DNA.
How can one create a chimera?
A chimera can result from one of several types of procedures other than fertilization:
Most people - other than committed animal rights advocates - will accept the chimeras of (i), and (ii) if the recipient embryo is not human. Many people are disquieted by the embryo chimeras of (iii), even if applied only to nonhuman animals. Most people would have a problem with (iii) if human embryo cells are part of the mixture.
Eight years ago, when the application was filed, no one had yet produced a human-nonhuman embryo chimera, but it was clear to me that it was possible to do so. Such entities could have practical uses. For example, chimeric embryos can be used by biologists to study the properties of human embryonic stem cells, as is now occurring in several laboratories and was endorsed by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in March. Chimeric full-term animals - part-human, part-pig, for instance - could serve as sources for transplantable organs or subjects for pharmaceutical drug evaluation not permitted with actual humans.
In discussions in the mid-1990s with economist and biotechnology critic Jeremy Rifkin, I came up with the idea of formulating an invention that was novel, technically feasible, useful, potentially profitable, but in violation of most people's views of appropriate uses of this technology. By applying for a patent on the humanzee, humouse, and other part-human embryos and animals, we hoped to alert the general public to the need for regulations and restrictions in this area.
Why wasn't the patent granted?
I did not intend to produce these entities, nor does the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) require that an inventor provide a prototype. Nonetheless, the PTO recently forwarded a final rejection of the part-human chimera. Although the PTO has been permitted since a Supreme Court decision in 1980 to issue patents on living organisms, a major ground for their rejection of my patent was their claim to have no guidance from Congress as to how "human" an organism can be before it is not patentable by the 13th Amendment's prohibition of slavery.
Is the biotech revolution an indicator of human progress or human folly?
Like every human activity, biotechnology is open to wise and foolish uses. The profit motive. coupled with an uncritical acceptance of the notion that new technology is the main way to human advancement, often leads to hype and incautious applications. In fact, existing technologies - sanitation, keeping water and air unpolluted, enabling poor people to eat enough and well-off people not too much, providing birth control and maternal and infant health services - would save more lives over the coming century than all foreseeable biotechnological applications.
What will be possible for biotech in 20 years? 50? 100?
In 20 years: New drugs for AIDS, cancer and infectious diseases. Therapeutic cells and tissues for spinal cord injury and certain other health impairments.
In 50 and 100 years: I hope for more along the same lines. I fear part-human organ donors, Huxley's Brave New World of custom-designed people and failed experiments, special-purpose humanoids and no more traditional, unengineered food crops.
How can religious people help inform the dialogue on the uses of biotechnology?
Religious and modern secular culture have a shared history and have contributed to a common legacy of respect for the natural world and the value of the human individual. This suggests that people across the spectrum of belief can work together to resist the negative prospects of biotechnology.
Secularist critics of these technologies recognize the value of an unengineered nature, but do not base this on a belief in a supernatural creator nor on a denial of the facts of organic evolution. They see perils in engineering human embryos, but do not consider this to be a warrant to restrict women's reproductive autonomy. Religion has been a repository of many of these values during periods when social and economic agendas have ignored them.
Religious people, in my view, should welcome the fact that these precepts are increasingly informing the discourse around technology and individual autonomy, and encourage the secularist critique. This would not be fostered by seeking, as some are doing, to turn back the clock on science and social progress by using the political process to impose a particular metaphysics on public life.