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The Promise of Chimeras

Legislators should be careful that regulation of chimera research does not prevent life-saving research.

The Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus briefed congressional staffers yesterday on chimera research, which has the potential to revolutionize medical research from organ transplants to disease study to drug testing.

However, the greatest danger to support for chimera research is a lack of knowledge of both the research itself and its potential benefits. Politicians should thoroughly examine this issue, utilizing scientific advice and expertise, before regulating or prohibiting work in this field.

Chimeras are organisms with cells from two distinct fertilization events, such as a man with a porcine heart valve or a mother who retains some of her child’s cells after birth.

Current stem cell advances benefit chimera research because they allow scientists to create more sophisticated human/animal chimeras. This research has so far allowed scientists to create sheep with human livers and mice with human prostates.

Creating chimeras by placing human cells in animals has the potential to vastly improve medicine. Researchers could perform drug tests on sheep with human liver cells, rather than testing new medicines on humans, thus avoiding human health risks. Scientists could also use chimeras to create human organs for transplant or study the progression of cancer. The potential of this research is astonishing.

However, chimeras do raise a number of ethical questions regarding the extent to which human and animal cells may be combined.

The National Academies Guidelines for Embryonic Stem Cell Research already provides reasonable regulation of chimera research to ensure it proceeds ethically. Sen. Brownback has introduced legislation that is unnecessarily strict in prohibiting some types of chimera research. The bill would prohibit chimera research into brain tumors and could potentially hamper other necessary studies as well. Legislators should take the time to develop legislation that does not unnecessarily restrict research, while still maintaining ethical practices. The National Academies’ guidelines offer a good start.

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