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Forum Lectures 2009

Jens G. Reich

Chimera Construction in Experimental Biology – the Ethical Question

Tuesday, 21 July 2009, 16:00, Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Jens G. Reich
Max-Delbrück-Center of Molecular Biology
Member of the German Ethics Council

Construction of genetically mixed creatures – chimeras and hybrids - has become a major experimental technique in cell biology. Transgenics and chimerism provides a valuable methodical tool to study developmental and regulatory processes in an intact organism and provide animal models to study human diseases in an experimental setting that is otherwise not accessible, for ethical reasons.

However, the concept of experimental study of chimeric and transgenic organisms raises ethical problems of its own, in particular if human chromosomes, cells, tissues or organs are transplanted into model animal embryos or organisms. Transgression of the species barrier violates a moral taboo in the opinion of many, and the concerns increase if the barrier between humans and animals is involved. Internet blogs document how worried or angry citizens react when debating hybrid creatures and how such objections are extended to experiments on embryonic or cellular pre-stages of such entities.

Fundamental research into human biology, as well as possible medical applications, requires chimeric constructions as a tool, involving model animals as well as human cells and subcellular components. The biological community as a whole, not just those working close to biomedical application involving humans directly, should know what is going on in this comparatively new field, but should also have a well-founded ethical position and should be aware that experiments which are legal in one country may be punishable in the neighbouring country. We should take concerns of citizens seriously, but should also be ready to defend the rationale of our experimental science in public.
In the seminar the speaker will recall the conceptual background and then present a set of case studies of chimera/hybrid-involving research, together with the ethical issues and controversial legal regulations in different European countries.