Like most of us, this headline made me squirm – visions of the Minotaur, mermaids, and Dolly the sheep with a human face, danced in my head. But as much as this form of experimentation seemed ethically wrong, I decided to figure out what exactly they were proposing.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) ruled that British scientists could now use animal eggs to host human stem cells. Because there is a shortage of human eggs to use for experimentation, they asked that rabbit or cow eggs be used.
Stem cells are the first kind of cells created when an egg is fertilized and divides. They are capable of developing into any kind of human cell – and are therefore quite interesting in terms of their potential to heal. (Transplanting these cells into damaged tissue can actually repair the tissue to some extent – no matter if its brain, heart muscle or other tissue). But these stem cells have to incubate inside an egg (kind of like a tiny soft shell) if they are to divide.
So the scientists are asking to use animal egg shells (without the nucleus that contains the majority of their DNA) as mini incubators for human stem cells. The HFEA approved that use – but has NOT approved mixing human and animal DNA in a human egg. Such a blend would serve no useful scientific purpose.
Ultimately, the goal of this human-animal embryo experiment is to allow for the creation of many more human stem cells without harvesting human eggs to do so. It also may help scientists to understand what these egg “shells” do to influence the growth of stem cells – if we knew how that worked, we may not need to use human eggs to retrieve stem cells, but could create them from any cell in the body.
So, although this embryo experiment sounds alarming at first – it’s actually a way to do stem cell research without using so many human eggs. Now, that doesn’t mean that I necessarily condone the idea – but it helps put into perspective what the scientists are proposing. Rest assured that there will be no Minotaurs resulting from these particular experiments.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.