The chimera was a horrific hybrid creature from ancient Asia Minor composed of a lion’s body with a goat’s head and a snake’s tail.
The fire-breathing creature was feared until the king of Lycia ordered Bellerophon to kill the monster.
The chimera is not the only hybrid beast from antiquity.
Hinduism has Ganesha, the god of wisdom, who resembles a man with an elephant’s head. The Babylonians had Apkallu who was part man and part fish. Of course, the Egyptians had a whole pantheon of gods who had everything from bird to crocodile heads.
A modern-day chimera now exists – not in the pages of literature or folk tales but in a research lab.
On April 15, researchers announced in Cell the creation of a monkey-human chimera – a hybrid organism composed of material from at least two other distinct species.
Scientists successfully injected human stem cells into monkey embryos. After fertilization, the hybrid cells began to divide, and some survived for 19 days.
This has been an ongoing area of research. In 2017, researchers created hybrid cells by combining human stem cells and the embryos of cows, pigs and even rats.
While some will see this as science gone wild, there is a purpose. Scientists are focused on developing solid organs for transplant, seeing chimeras as a possible avenue.
Currently, organ transplantation faces two major problems.
First, not enough solid organs are available for people on a transplant waiting list. The second problem is organ rejection, which can be either acute or chronic.
The possibility of creating solid organs from chimeras that are based on the patient’s DNA would eliminate the need for immunosuppressant drug therapy. In turn, scientists would have solved both problems with current organ transplant procedures. This would be a game-changer.
While all of this feels like science fiction, it is not. In 2017, researchers developed pancreases from rat embryos that were injected with mice stem cells.
While an interesting and exciting possibility, it raises serious ethical concerns. Primarily, it forces us to ascertain the moral status of these chimeras.
Researchers have stated that there is no plan to implant the hybrid monkey-human cells into a female monkey, but it is a theoretical possibility. We already know that researchers are seriously looking at doing this very thing with human-mice hybrids.
Would the byproduct of these experiments be human or animal?
Researchers think that eventually they will be able to filter out any nonhuman genetic material, making the final product pure, but it still raises several questions:
- What is it and what is its moral status?
- Could chimeras have legal and moral rights?
- Do we have obligations toward these hybrids?
Sorting out the moral status of chimeras is difficult. Not only do we have to consider the moral standing of a collection of partially human cells growing in a petri dish, but also animal rights.
Other moral questions abound:
- Is it ever moral for one species to use the other as a surrogate?
- Is it even possible to filter out all nonhuman genetic material or might a third species be created by accident?
- Have appropriate safety measures been taken?
- What happens when a rouge scientist takes this technology and brings a chimera to birth?
- Will we end up with a creature that has a human brain stuck in an animal body, and what is the meaning of all of this?
Even the questions about the subject ultimately fall into absurdity.
The scientific community, much less the general public, has not had sufficient time to reflect on all the implications of such matters. The existential implications of this are unimaginable at this point.
At present, there is very little oversight or policy discussion about chimeras.
Some nations, like the United States and the United Kingdom, have strict limitations on such research. Japan, on the other hand, lifted its ban in 2019 and has provided funding for research ever since.
In 2015, the National Institutes of Health restricted the development of animal-human embryos. Later, they revised the ruling to allow for experiments only after the fertilized cells begin to develop a nervous system.
Lawmakers, ethicists and faith communities need to dig into this very technical field and begin to inform themselves about this research and process in order to begin an informed, fact-based dialogue about the moral and ethical implications.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.