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Human-animal hybrids are coming and could be used to grow organs for transplant – a philosopher weighs in
The goal is to eventually grow a human pancreas in a larger animal – such as a pig – which can be transplanted.
Around the world thousands of people are on organ donor waiting lists.
While some of those people will receive the organ transplants they need in time, the sad reality is that many will die waiting. But controversial new research may provide a way to address this crisis.
Japan has recently overturned its ban on the creation of human-animal hybrids, or “chimeras", and approved a request by researchers from the University of Tokyo to create a human-mouse hybrid.
Scientists will attempt to grow a human pancreas inside a mouse, using a certain kind of stem cell known as “induced pluripotent stem cells". These are cells that can grow into almost any kind of cell. The stem cells will be injected into a mouse embryo, which has been genetically modified to be incapable of producing a pancreas using its own cells. This hybrid embryo is then implanted in a mouse surrogate and allowed to grow. The goal is to eventually grow a human pancreas in a larger animal – such as a pig – which can be transplanted into a human.
Human-animal hybrids have been created in both the US and UK, but regulations require the embryo to be destroyed usually by 14 days. The new Japanese regulations allow for the embryo to be implanted in a surrogate uterus, and eventually, to be born as a mouse with a “human" pancreas. The mice will then be monitored for up to two years, to see where the human cells travel and how the mice develop.
The idea of human-animal hybrids can raise a lot of questions and it's easy to feel they are “unnatural" because they violate the boundaries between species. But the boundary between species is often fluid, and we don't seem to have the same reaction to animal hybrids like mules, or the many kinds of plant hybrids humans have produced.
Philosophers believe that negative reactions to human-animal hybrids might be based on our need to have a clear boundary between things that are “human" and things that are not. This distinction grounds many of our social practices involving animals, and so threatening this boundary could create moral confusion.
Some might feel that human-animal hybrids are a threat to human dignity. But it's difficult to specify what this claim really amounts to. A stronger objection is the idea that a human-animal hybrid may acquire human characteristics, and as a result, be entitled to human level moral consideration.
If, for example, the injected human stem cells travel to the mouse's brain, it could develop enhanced cognitive capacities compared to a normal mouse. And on that basis, it may be entitled to a much higher moral status than a mouse would normally be granted – and possibly make it unethical for use in scientific experimentation.
Moral status tells us whose interests count, from a moral point of view. Most people would say human beings have full moral status, as do babies, fetuses and the severely disabled, which means we must consider their interests. More controversially, some people also believe that non-human animals – such as chimpanzees or human embryos – possess a degree of moral status approaching that of human beings.
But pinning down what characteristics confer moral status can be tricky. Various criteria have been suggested, including the ability to reason, have self-awareness, the ability to form relationships with others, the capacity for suffering, or simply being a part of the human species. But each of these criteria ends up including some groups who don't have moral status, or excluding some who do.
The idea that non-human animals might have sufficient moral status for it to be morally wrong to kill them for food, or use for medical research, has gained significant traction in the philosophical community. Similarly, veganism has grown massively worldwide. There's been a 600% increase in people identifying as vegan in the US in just the last three years. While in the UK the number of vegans has risen from 150,000 in 2014 to 600,000 in 2018, which suggests people are increasingly willing to take the interests of animals seriously.
From a philosophical perspective using non-human animals for food or medical research is unethical because it significantly harms the animal, while providing only a small or insignificant benefit to us. But even those who believe that non-human animals have moral status would likely support sacrificing the life of a non-human animal to save the life of a human – as would be the case in human-animal organ donation. This is because a human can value its life in complex ways that a non-human animal cannot.
But if human-animal hybrids become more like us than non-human animals, it could then be argued that it's unethical to produce a hybrid simply for the purposes of extracting its organs. That is, harvesting the organs of a non-consenting human-animal hybrid could be morally equivalent to harvesting the organs of a non-consenting human.
Of course, for this argument to work, there would need to be strong reasons for thinking not only that a human-animal hybrid has moral status, but that its life has equal moral value to that of a human. And even if a mouse-human hybrid did have a "human-like" brain, it is exceedingly unlikely that it would be human enough to merit equal moral consideration.
So given that this process has the potential to successfully resolve the perpetual lack of organs for transplant, it's reasonable to think that the use of human-animal hybrids is the right thing to do to help save human lives – even if it does require some level of animal suffering.
- Animals feel pain. Why do people believe they don't? - Big Think ›
- Glenn Cohen: How Ethical Is It to Engineer Human-Animal Hybrids ... ›
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.