Science & Technology

The Yuck Factor

Activists try to patent fear.


The opponents of medical biotechnology are nothing if not fiendishly creative. Leading anti-biotech activist Jeremy Rifkin, the head of the Foundation on Economic Trends, working with New York Medical College biologist Stuart Newman, a member of the activist group the Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG), has concocted a scheme aimed at making Americans queasy about biomedical progress—patenting the Humouse (a hypothetical human-mouse combination) and other human-animal chimeras.

Chimeras are creatures composed of the cells of two genetically different individuals, usually combined at the embryonic stage. There are rare natural human chimeras who are born when the embryonic cells of fraternal twins combine in the womb to create a single individual. Scientists have also deliberately created cross-species chimeras like the "geep," in which embryonic cells from goats and sheep were combined.

Newman makes no bones about what they are up to, telling CRG's Genewatch that he and Rifkin are applying for the chimera patent because they hope it is "something that would be shocking and unacceptable to most people." In other words, he wants to come up with a development that will provoke the public and policy makers to go "yuck." They claim the patent they are seeking would cover combinations of embryonic animal and human cells. They suggest that their patent would be broad enough to cover the introduction of human genes into animals and animal cells.

Both have long opposed corporations "owning" patents on living organisms (or on cells and genes). But do corporations really "own" genes or animals? What are patents? Patents are temporary monopolies (20 years) granted by the federal government to inventors as a way to encourage them to disclose publicly how their inventions work so that other people will be able to use them.

Often reviled by academic researchers, the patent system is actually an information-disclosure procedure that works somewhat like peer-reviewed scientific publication—that is, the first one to publish gets the credit. Like patents, peer-reviewed research must disclose enough information so that other researchers can reproduce the experiment. The temporary monopolies created by patents are valuable, which encourages people to invest in the research and development projects of biotech companies.

The aim of Rifkin and Newman is ultimately to unravel the U.S. Supreme Court's 1980 decision in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that it is legal to patent modified living organisms. The Court held in that case that "anything under the sun made by man" could be patented as long as it is "new, non-obvious, and useful."

Let's look a bit more closely at the biomedical research Rifkin and Newman would like to undermine. Researchers have been inserting human genes into other creatures for some time. For example, most of the insulin used by American diabetics today is produced by E. coli bacteria into which the human insulin gene has been inserted. Pigs have been produced that express the gene for human growth hormone. Despite the addition of these human genes, neither the E. coli nor the pigs have yet petitioned to have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applied to them.

Rifkin and Newman fearfully cite recent research in which nuclei taken from human cells are combined with enucleated eggs from cows and rabbits. That's the kind of work they think should be stopped. However, the goal of combining cow eggs with human cellular nuclei is not to create a minotaur, but to jumpstart the production of human embryonic stem cells that might someday serve as perfect transplants.

Another possibility is that biotech researchers will be able to create pigs with hearts and livers that are compatible with human immune systems so that they would not be rejected if they were transplanted into people who need them.

One day it might be possible to create mice with complete human immune systems. The mice would still be mice. They would be furry, have tails, like cheese, and fear cats. But they would also be wonderful lab animals that could illuminate all kinds of questions about human ailments.

The yuckiest scenario fomented by Rifkin and Newman is the creation of a human-chimp chimera. Their patent specifically covers the method of combining embryonic cells from humans and chimpanzees to produce such a creature. Keep in mind that such a chimera is not a hybrid like a mule, which is produced by fertilizing a horse egg with donkey sperm. Of course, there are practical problems. For example, to get beyond the petri dish, monkeymen chimera would have to be implanted in a womb and brought to term. It might even work—after all, chimps share 98.7 percent of our genes.

Rather than calling such hypothetical chimeras half human/half chimp, given the similarity of the genomes, it would be more correct to say that genetically they would be 99.35 percent human. So given the closeness of the chimp and human genomes, it is arguable that the U.S. Patent Office's initial rejection of the Rifkin/Newman patent application on the grounds that such a chimera "embraces a human being" makes some rough sense.

But the real differences between humans and chimps are not just their genes, but how the genes they share are expressed. Recent research finds that chimp and human genes are similarly expressed in their livers and blood, but are dramatically different in their brains. It is clearer and clearer that what makes us human are our brains, not the genetic recipes for those brains. While the genetic recipe is necessary, it is far from sufficient.

"There really is no boundary on what you can do with human life. There's no natural stopping point," Newman claimed in the Los Angeles Times. "That troubles me. I think it will ultimately lead to genetically engineered human beings made for sale."

That's not true. One boundary is that no human/primate chimera using whole embryonic cells should be brought to term. Of course, creating monkeys or apes with human immune systems poses no moral problems. Other boundaries can be set as researchers gain further knowledge. For example, once the genes (and the expression profiles of those genes) that differentiate us from chimpanzees are identified, adding them to chimps might be outlawed.

However, adding such complexes of genes to other creatures, say mice, would raise no ethical problems. Why? Because mice simply couldn't develop humanlike brains with self-consciousness. And such mice might be useful for finding treatments for human brain diseases The essential point is that certain types of brains, not genes, have moral standing. Human genes are not sacred, people are.

The yuckiest thing of all would be if the public and policy makers were frightened by the Frankenstein fantasies peddled by clever activists into slowing biomedical progress that could ameliorate the suffering of millions.