A shock-inducing headline has been circulating social media recently, picked up by a number of different websites and Facebook page. The claim that is being made is that scientists have officially created the first ever human-pig hybrid. The idea is nothing short of science fiction, bringing about mental images of half human/half animal creatures running the world, much like the creatures depicted in television and movies. Horrifying images of creatures that couldn’t possibly be meant to walk this earth.
Before you go locking your doors, fearing the coming of some plot from a horror movie, let’s get a few facts straight.
A team of researchers from the Salk Institute have successfully implanted human cells into a pig embryo creating what is referred to as a ‘chimera.’ A word that also has ties to mythological beings, a chimera in the scientific world refers to a single organism that is composed of cells from two different beings. This includes both the merging of DNA in a single animal chimera or the combination of tissue in a plant chimera.
The creation of human-animal chimeras incites great debate in our society, bringing a number of ethical issues to the forefront of our minds. It is for this reason that experimentation including the merging of human and animal DNA is ineligible for public funding in the United States. The doesn’t, however, stop those who are able to find private funding for their efforts. Such is the case for the team at Salk Institute.
When questioned about the purpose of their research, lead study author Jun Wu explained that there is another side to the debate another way of looking at the topic. “In ancient civilizations, chimeras were associated with God,” he explained, and our ancestors thought “the chimeric form can guard humans.”
Rather than focusing on the potential ethical problems associated with this research, the team looks at the possibilities that it carried for the human population. At this time the National Kidney Foundation reports that there are 121,678 Americans waiting for lifesaving organ transplants. Imagine the possibility if we could actually grow viable organs for transplant!
The chimera is created by introducing human cells into pig embryos and then implanting those embryos into pigs to mature and grow. After approximately 4 weeks they studied the embryos again to determine how the embryos had grown. During this time, they analyzed the percentage of cells that were pig versus those that were human. This information is vital to the end game, as the organs will be rejected after transplant if they contain too much pig DNA.
The team did note that they had to introduce the human DNA at specific times in the embryo’s development cycle in order for the chimera embryos to survive the process. In the end, the team created a total of 186 late-stage embryos that survived. From these, Wu stated, “we estimate [each had] about one in 100.000 human cells.”
Stem cell expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University Ke Cheng stated that this percentage is still low, and would have to be increased before they would provide for the potential of viable organs, however, as a first step, it is promising. While there are no human-pig hybrids running the earth as the research didn’t move past the embryonic stage, there is no telling what the future may hold.