Recent revelations that the US National Institute of Health (NIH) had been funding gain-of-function (GOF) research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology has shone a spotlight on China’s controversial research in biomedical sciences.
GOF research involves taking a pathogen and altering it to make it more deadly and infectious, and the US government had placed a research moratorium from 2014 to 2017 on three potential pandemic pathogens (PPPs) of influenza, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Not only does China engage in GOF research, it also conducts another controversial experiment – creating human-animal chimeras for vaccines and organ transplants. A chimera is an organism whose cells come from two or more “individuals,” and the word comes from Greek mythology, which describes a creature that was part lion, part goat and part snake.
China provides legal loopholes
Because of more stringent regulations of public health and bioethics in the US and other Western countries, American and European scientists tend to outsource GOF and chimeric research to China, where it does not face such restrictions.
For example, when the Chinese Academy of Science’s Kunming Institute of Zoology created the first human-monkey chimera in July 2019, the project was led by a Spanish scientist, Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, from the American Salk Institute in San Diego, in collaboration with the Murcia Catholic University in Murcia, Spain.
Their report was published in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, revealing the research was conducted in China “to avoid legal issues.” In the US, the NIH bans federal funding to create human-monkey embryos, while in Canada, putting non-human stem cells into human embryos is a criminal offense under the Assisted Human Reproduction Act.
China is thus viewed as a dumping ground and giant test tube for all kinds of dangerous and ethically controversial research outlawed by Western countries, similar to how it became a dumping ground for recyclable waste in past decades.
Not only has this team of Spanish, American and Chinese scientists created a human-monkey chimera, but Professor Belmonte also created a human-pig embryo in the past. Last December, a team of scientists in Beijing brought to term a pig-monkey chimera.
Scientists see chimeras as a potential way to address the shortage of organs such as kidneys, livers and hearts for transplantation, and believe organs genetically matched to a particular human recipient could one day be grown inside animals. The approach is based on taking human cells and reprogramming them to become stem cells, which are introduced into the embryo of another species.
In April 2019, Chinese researchers inserted into monkey embryos a human gene critical for human brain development. Some scientists propose humanizing large portions of the monkey brain, such as the hippocampus, to be entirely human-derived, in order to study human neurological disorders.
However, this raises many ethical questions, given that the brain is the center of cognition and reflection. For example, should the human-animal hybrid develop a human-like nervous system capable of consciousness, at what point then does a chimeric brain become less monkey, and more human?
As Dr Judy Illes, professor of neurology and Canada research chair in neuroethics at the University of British Columbia, asked: “Why humanize a monkey, if that’s what we need to do? If that’s justified scientifically, then we just need to be doing the experiment on humans. We don’t need to do it on a humanized monkey.”
Grafting man with beast
Nonetheless, chimeric research seems to be gaining traction, not only for organ transplants and studying diseases, but also for developing vaccines. In 2017, Portuguese researchers created a chimera virus, a mouse virus with a human viral gene, that enabled them to investigate new ways to treat cancer caused by human herpes virus infection. Human viruses are also cultured on animal cells to help produce vaccines.
Scientists are also looking to human-animal chimeras with a “humanized” immune system to test vaccines. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded a project at Peking University through its Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative to develop a ”humanized” chimeric mouse model to develop vaccines for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV).
This grafting of man and beast to recombine their DNA more closely, and the merging of different species to study disease through GOF or chimeric research, is also advancing the One Health Initiative that seeks to produce a cross-species vaccine for both human and animals.
The cross-species approach is to advance human vaccine research for the benefit of veterinary vaccines and vice versa, with researchers collaborating to unlock shared biological mechanisms underlying disease immunity, thereby accelerating the design and development of vaccines across species.
However, in the aftermath of Covid-19, one shudders to think what would happen should these monster germs and chimeras escape from the labs.
Christina Lin is a California-based foreign and security policy analyst. She has extensive US government experience working on national security and economic issues and her current focus is on China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations.