For health and legal professionals with an interest in bioethics
Human-rabbit clone announced and no noses twitch

Human-rabbit clone announced and no noses twitch
By Michael Cook
Courier Mail (Brisbane), 26 August 2003

CHINESE scientists have created hundreds of human-rabbit hybrid embryos, the world's leading science journal, Nature, announced last week.

Yawn.

So what? Where's the spike? Delete.

That was the general reaction to one of the most bizarre and horrifying developments in science this year.

This was an event which should have been greeted with gasps of disgust and yawns of the technicolour sort. Instead, a story which Nature treated as a sensational exclusive was deemed so boring that it couldn't find a berth in the obscurity of world briefs.

True, several ripping yarns were jostling for Australian media attention at the same time, like those sensational sex-chat allegations against Warnie and the Terminator's mid-life career shift to governator.

All the same, isn't something dreadfully amiss with our moral antennae when a credible source opens a window on the future of Australian science, spies an ethical catastrophe -- and it hardly registers.

Here's what has happened . . .

A US-trained scientist at Shanghai Second Medical University, Huizhen Sheng, has published a peer-reviewed article in an international journal based in China describing how she created 400 embryos by injecting human DNA into the eggs of New Zealand rabbits. One hundred of these survived for several days.

Sheng says she won't be implanting these embryos in human surrogate mothers to create carrot-loving kids with floppy ears and big front teeth. Her interest is extracting embryonic stem cells -- in the hope of working miracles like getting Christopher Reeve to walk again, curing juvenile diabetes or reversing Parkinson's disease.

Her overseas colleagues were a tad sceptical about her work, but intrigued. If her results are verified, they will mark a significant advance in cloning technology.

First, they show that it is possible to "reprogram" already-developed adult cells so that they can revert to stem cells which are capable of forming any cell type in the body. Stem cell scientists describe this as the "holy grail" of their specialty.

Second, it shows that hybrid species are possible. Hitherto, efforts to cross humans with other species have failed because mitochondrial DNA in the animal egg cell reacts negatively with human DNA.

And finally, it implies that the "therapeutic cloning" touted by Professor Alan Trounson and other scientists in Australia could be managed on an industrial scale. There is no limit to the number of eggs those hyper-fertile New Zealand rabbits can produce -- human eggs are far harder to obtain.

None of the cloning experts interviewed by various newspapers overseas had ethical qualms about the hybrid embryos.

On the contrary, Robin Lovell-Badge, of the UK's National Institute for Medical Research, says he is impressed. Harvard University cloning expert Douglas Melton says, "I'm glad to see it published as it will encourage others to try it."

Even American bioethics expert R. Alta Charo, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says she can't see any harm, provided the embryos are not implanted in a woman's body.

Thankfully, the creation of hybrid species has been banned in Australia. But this doesn't mean that Sheng's work -- if it proves successful -- won't have an impact here.

Researchers could try to import cut-rate Chinese human-rabbit stem cell lines -- they might fit into tight research budgets more easily than 100 per cent human lines.

Furthermore, we could expect an intense and heated campaign to reverse the ban on hybrids in order to make cheap miracle cures possible. Ethics? Well, look here, hybrids have received the full endorsement of Shanghai Municipal Council -- what more could you want?

Am I drawing a long bow?

I would have thought so -- until last week's announcement. Then I realised that experimenting on human life at its most vulnerable has lost its power to shock and disgust.

Not even two years ago now, a tiny American biotech company, Advanced Cell Technology, set alarm bells ringing around the world when it claimed it had cloned a handful of human embryos. The ensuing controversy made front-page news, with abundant inside yib-yab about "standing on the threshold of a Brave New World".

Then there was the passionate, wordy and exhausting debate in Federal Parliament over research on frozen IVF embryos. That ended in victory for the researchers -- a victory not only in Canberra, but in the minds of the media, the scientific community and the Australian public.

It has taken less than two years to habituate ourselves to regarding human embryos as pharmaceutical fodder. Now we've reached the point where scientists play at the ghastly fantasies of The Island of Dr Moreau and no one blinks.

So don't be surprised if you read that Dr Huizhen Sheng has been trundled before a parliamentary committee to argue the case for hybrid humans on behalf of the National Stem Cell Centre. If, of course, the media bothers to cover her speech.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics e-mail newsletter Australasian Bioethics Information
mcook@australasianbioethics.org