Human-pig chimeras! Who knew?

There’s never a dull moment around the old biotech R & D table

Ever since I met my first computer in about 1980, I’ve had this sinking feeling that science and technology is slipping away from me.

There I was as a new kid in the Lethbridge Herald newsroom. I had used a typewriter all during my early career, and here I was sitting in front of a large beige box with a green screen, with no idea how to even turn it on. My hopes? Maybe it was just a flash in the pan and one day soon I could get back to my reliable Underwood. Although it was a struggle and I did figure it out, I have long suspected technology and biotechnology would always be outpacing my thinking. There is always something new.

Fortunately my 1975 edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary still works.

Chimera? Have you ever run into that? It was new to me.

On the biotechnology front, the headline I came across in a recent Post Media article: “Human-pig chimera embyros created.” What the heck are researchers doing now?

The first chimera definition provided by Merriam-Webster: “a fire-breathing she-monster in mythology” — that doesn’t sound good. A second definition M-W offers: “an individual, organ or part consisting of tissues of diverse genetic constitution…” — now that’s perhaps a little easier to take than the initial “monster” image.

But it got me thinking about all the baggage that goes with technology and biotechnology — even with good intentions it can be a tough sell.

The chimera story — so these California researchers injected different forms of human stem cells into pig embryos and everything survived and grew creating these human-pig chimeras (see definition No. 2 above) all with the some-day objective of growing human organs inside a pig host that might be harvested and used to save or enhance lives in human organ transplant programs. At this stage, researchers just wanted to see if they could successfully transfer human stem cells and have them grow, which they did. They terminated the life of these chimeras embyros at about four weeks, so there won’t be any part human/part porcine creatures running around anywhere — not yet anyway.

So where is this going? According to this news report researchers say it may one day be possible to block or delete genes critical for the development of a given organ (a pancreas, for example) in a fertilized pig egg, and then inject human stem cells in the embyro, to fill the gap and grow a human pancreas in the pig.

Once this human/pig fetus has been born and grows to a certain size, the pancreas could be harvested from the chimeric animal and used in a human transplant program. One researcher envisions “clinical grade” pig farms to incubate the human organs. They even see this type of a biotechnology as a means to extend human life — let’s live forever.

It is a very noble project in theory. It could make a great contribution to human health. But if this ever goes forward, we won’t have to wait long for the silver screen hypothetical adaptation of “how something went horribly wrong in the chimera lab” (see definition No. 1) depicts how the world is being overtaken by crazed half-human pigs. I can just see the drama and criticism around this project.

It could begin long before the feet of any chimera even hits the ground. I was watching a science special on the thinking brains of animals and of course pigs were among those featured. Pigs are smart. And further to that, the feature showed two young men in the U.S. who had adopted a Yorkshire piglet a few years ago, and now it was a 650 pound sow living quite comfortably in their home. They had taught it all sorts of living skills. The sow had its own bed and these guys would cuddle up with it in on the living room floor to watch TV. They lived on an acreage and now had established a pig sanctuary. I don’t imagine these guys will be investing any money in human/pig chimera research and development.

Dealing with the public or society on these biotech issues can be pretty complicated. In an ever-changing social environment technology can be a tough sell.

The horror of the GMO?

I may be just too trusting, but I’m still mystified why genetically modified crops have caught so much flack, and why Monsanto became the poster child for corporate evil.

Many science-based regulators around the world deemed it is safe for human health — Health Canada certainly did. I have yet to hear any science-based research that confirms it has caused human health problems and yet Roundup Ready and the whole concept of GMO crops continue to be the target of much criticism.

If you look on-line there are sweeping criticisms of the health and environmental impacts associated with GMOs.

“Numerous health problems increased after GMOs were introduced in 1996,” claims the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) which describes itself as the leading authority on GMO information. “The percentage of Americans with three or more chronic illnesses jumped from seven to 13 per cent; food allergies skyrocketed, and disorders such as autism, reproductive disorders, digestive problems, and others are on the rise. Although there is not sufficient research to confirm that GMOs are a contributing factor, doctors groups… tell us not to wait before we start protecting ourselves, and especially our children who are most at risk.”

The Institute goes on to claim since the introduction of GMOs worldwide herbicide use has increased, and “genetic engineering creates dangerous side effects. By mixing genes from totally unrelated species, genetic engineering unleashes a host of unpredictable side effects. Moreover, irrespective of the type of genes that are inserted, the very process of creating a GM plant can result in massive collateral damage that produces new toxins, allergens, carcinogens, and nutritional deficiencies.”

I read stuff like that and wonder: has no one in the regulatory world been made aware of this? Is everyone on the Monsanto payroll? Just about every day there is public safety product recall because a knob come off some small appliance and it poses a potential health risk. Is no one noticing the world is going to hell in a hand basket due to GMOs? I just find it odd. Being a trusting soul of regulators, I am suspicious of the criticism, but some of the general public may be apt to see an IRT report as confirmation of a government cover up.

And on the other hand, I can read an article that says researchers hope to use genetic engineering to increase Vitamin A levels in rice, which could help prevent blindness in millions of people in third world countries as well as save the lives of about three million kids, annually. I think that would be a pretty good thing too. If biotechnology can accomplish that, does that make GMO a good or bad thing?

Mixing science and biotechnology, with a lot of misinformation and changing societal attitudes is very complicated business. Too much for me to figure out.

I think it is a bit ironic that Bayer Crop Science recently bought the Monsanto ag business. As it tackles business development and ongoing GMO issues, they do have the option to record a standard message on their consumer hotline voicemail “take two aspirin and call us in the morning.”

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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