Volume 106; Issue 23; ISSN: 00113492 2007 Current Events.
What do you get when you cross a sheep with a human? That sounds like a joke, but the question is no laughing matter; it's serious science. The result, a chimera, is an animal with cells from another animal. Recently, Esmail Zanjani, a scientist at the University of Nevada, announced he had created sheep with 15 percent human cells. His goal is to create partly human organs for people who need transplants.
The word chimera comes from a mythical Greek beast with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a snake's tail. Skeptics say that the prospect of growing human spare parts in sheep is still a distant dream. Modern cloning techniques, however, have allowed scientists to enter uncharted and, some people say, dangerous territory. Currently, no laws regulate the creation of chimeras-only voluntary guidelines from the National Academies. And the absence of legislation is, to some, as scary as the original Greek chimera.
In 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush called for "legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms," including "creating human-animal hybrids." At the time, his speech left many people scratching their heads and wondering whether the president had just proposed a ban on mermaids. But Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) knew exactly what Bush meant.
"Human chimeras-long considered science fiction or mythology-have become reality," he said in a 2005 speech at Harvard Law School. "These hybrid creatures blur the line between humans and animals and [seriously] compromise human dignity." Brownback proposed a law in 2006 banning human chimera research. One of his main concerns is that such research often uses human embryonic stem cells, the extraction of which destroys the embryo. Brownback is among many critics who consider that practice immoral.
Brownback also fears that mixing human and animal genetic material could create new diseases. Dr. Patrick Dixon, a lecturer on biological trends, worries that new viruses could be a "biological nightmare" for humans. "Mutant animal viruses are a real threat, as we have seen with HIV [the virus that causes AIDS]."