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Genetic Mingling Mixes Human, Animal Cells

Associated Press | April 29, 2005
By PAUL ELIAS

On a farm about six miles outside this gambling town, Jason Chamberlain looks over a flock of about 50 smelly sheep, many of them possessing partially human livers, hearts, brains and other organs.

The University of Nevada-Reno researcher talks matter-of-factly about his plans to euthanize one of the pregnant sheep in a nearby lab. He can't wait to examine the effects of the human cells he had injected into the fetus' brain about two months ago.

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"It's mice on a large scale," Chamberlain says with a shrug.

As strange as his work may sound, it falls firmly within the new ethics guidelines the influential National Academies issued this past week for stem cell research.

In fact, the Academies' report endorses research that co-mingles human and animal tissue as vital to ensuring that experimental drugs and new tissue replacement therapies are safe for people.

Doctors have transplanted pig valves into human hearts for years, and scientists have injected human cells into lab animals for even longer.

But the biological co-mingling of animal and human is now evolving into even more exotic and unsettling mixes of species, evoking the Greek myth of the monstrous chimera, which was part lion, part goat and part serpent.

In the past two years, scientists have created pigs with human blood, fused rabbit eggs with human DNA and injected human stem cells to make paralyzed mice walk.

Particularly worrisome to some scientists are the nightmare scenarios that could arise from the mixing of brain cells: What if a human mind somehow got trapped inside a sheep's head?

The "idea that human neuronal cells might participate in 'higher order' brain functions in a nonhuman animal, however unlikely that may be, raises concerns that need to be considered," the academies report warned.

In January, an informal ethics committee at Stanford University endorsed a proposal to create mice with brains nearly completely made of human brain cells. Stem cell scientist Irving Weissman said his experiment could provide unparalleled insight into how the human brain develops and how degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson's progress.

Stanford law professor Hank Greely, who chaired the ethics committee, said the board was satisfied that the size and shape of the mouse brain would prevent the human cells from creating any traits of humanity. Just in case, Greely said, the committee recommended closely monitoring the mice's behavior and immediately killing any that display human-like behavior.

The Academies' report recommends that each institution involved in stem cell research create a formal, standing committee to specifically oversee the work, including experiments that mix human and animal cells.

Weissman, who has already created mice with 1 percent human brain cells, said he has no immediate plans to make mostly human mouse brains, but wanted to get ethical clearance in any case. A formal Stanford committee that oversees research at the university would also need to authorize the experiment.

Few human-animal hybrids are as advanced as the sheep created by another stem cell scientist, Esmail Zanjani, and his team at the University of Nevada-Reno.

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They want to one day turn sheep into living factories for human organs and tissues and along the way create cutting-edge lab animals to more effectively test experimental drugs.

Zanjani is most optimistic about the sheep that grow partially human livers after human stem cells are injected into them while they are still in the womb. Most of the adult sheep in his experiment contain about 10 percent human liver cells, though a few have as much as 40 percent, Zanjani said.

Because the human liver regenerates, the research raises the possibility of transplanting partial organs into people whose livers are failing.

Zanjani must first ensure no animal diseases would be passed on to patients. He also must find an efficient way to completely separate the human and sheep cells, a tough task because the human cells aren't clumped together but are rather spread throughout the sheep's liver.

Zanjani and other stem cell scientists defend their research and insist they aren't creating monsters — or anything remotely human.

"We haven't seen them act as anything but sheep," Zanjani said.

Zanjani's goals are many years from being realized.

He's also had trouble raising funds, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating the university over allegations made by another researcher that the school mishandled its research sheep. Zanjani declined to comment on that matter, and university officials have stood by their practices.

Allegations about the proper treatment of lab animals may take on strange new meanings as scientists work their way up the evolutionary chart. First, human stem cells were injected into bacteria, then mice and now sheep. Such research blurs biological divisions between species that couldn't until now be breached.

Drawing ethical boundaries that no research appears to have crossed yet, the Academies recommend a prohibition on mixing human stem cells with embryos from monkeys and other primates. But even that policy recommendation isn't tough enough for some researchers.

"The boundary is going to push further into larger animals," New York Medical College professor Stuart Newman said. "That's just asking for trouble."

Newman and anti-biotechnology activist Jeremy Rifkin have been tracking this issue for the last decade and were behind a rather creative assault on both interspecies mixing and the government's policy of patenting individual human genes and other living matter.

Years ago, the two applied for a patent for what they called a "humanzee," a hypothetical — but very possible — creation that was half human and chimp.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office finally denied their application this year, ruling that the proposed invention was too human: Constitutional prohibitions against slavery prevents the patenting of people.

Newman and Rifkin were delighted, since they never intended to create the creature and instead wanted to use their application to protest what they see as science and commerce turning people into commodities.

And that's a point, Newman warns, that stem scientists are edging closer to every day: "Once you are on the slope, you tend to move down it."


Augmenting the Animal Kingdom 

Wired News | May 3, 2005
By Lakshmi Sandhana

Natural evolution has produced the eye, butterfly wings and other wonders that would put any inventor to shame. But who's to say evolution couldn't be improved with the help of a little technology?

So argues James Auger in his controversial and sometimes unsettling book, Augmented Animals . A designer and former research associate with MIT Media Lab Europe, Auger envisions animals, birds, reptiles and even fish becoming appreciative techno-geeks, using specially engineered gadgets to help them overcome their evolutionary shortcomings, promote their chances of survival or just simply lead easier and more comfortable lives.

On tap for the future: Rodents zooming around with night-vision survival goggles, squirrels hoarding nuts using GPS locators and fish armed with metal detectors to avoid the angler's hook.

Auger's current ambitions are relatively modest. He's developing a LED light that aims to translate tail wagging into plain English. The device fits on a dog's tail, and flashes text messages when the tail waves through the air. He plans to have a working product on display at Harrods in London by September.

"I'm serious about the ideas behind the products," says Auger. "I think that the fact that some of them could be realized means that as concepts they tread the scary line between fact and fiction and therefore are taken a little more seriously. If one person in a hundred is inspired to think about the philosophical issues behind the ideas and the other 99 read it like Calvin and Hobbs , I'd consider that a success."

See photos

Auger admits that his ideas are mostly conceptual in regard to animals living in the wild. But for tame and domesticated companions, some may not be so far-fetched. For example, a bird cage could be built using existing aerodynamic testing technology that might give captive birds the illusion of long-distance flight. And odor respirators could filter out undesirable smells for dogs and other animals with highly developed olfactory senses.

Technology augmentations have already been tried in agribusiness, where an animal's happiness can lead directly to bigger profits.

A few years ago, farm researchers tried fitting hens with red plastic contact lenses to reduce aggression caused by tight caging and overcrowding. The idea was quickly dropped when it was found to cause more problems than it solved.

Future technologies, though, could yield fruit. For example, some theorists have floated a Matrix-like scenario that would use direct stimulation of the brain to fool livestock about the reality of their living conditions.

"To offset the cruelty of factory-farming, routine implants of smart microchips in the pleasure centers may be feasible," says David Pearce , associate editor of the Journal of Evolution and Technology . "Since there is no physiological tolerance to pure pleasure, factory-farmed animals could lead a lifetime of pure bliss instead of misery. Unnatural? Yes, but so is factory farming. Immoral? No, certainly not compared to the terrible suffering we inflict on factory-farmed animals today."

Not everyone agrees that fitting animals with invasive and experimental gadgetry is desirable, or even ethical.

Jeffrey R. Harrow, author of the The Harrow Technology Report doesn't think the idea of augmenting animals is a good one.

"Any time we mess with nature's evolutionary process we run the very real risk of changing things for the worse since we have very limited scope in determining the longer term results," Harrow says. "With the possible exception of endangered species and probably not even those because our modifications would by definition change the species, we must be exceedingly careful or we might change our biosphere in ways later generations might abhor."

If the debate over animal augmentation is still in its infancy, it will likely only grow along with advances in technology. Ultimately, some theorists argue, humans may have to decide whether they have a moral duty to help animals cross the divide that separates the species by giving them the ability to acquire higher mental functions -- a theme explored in apocalyptic films such as Planet of the Apes and The Day of the Dolphin .

"With children, the insane and the demented we are obliged, when we can, to help these 'disabled citizens' to achieve or regain their full self-determination," says Dr. James J. Hughes , executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and author of Citizen Cyborg . "We have the same responsibility to enhance the intelligence and communication abilities of great apes, and possibly also of dolphins and elephants, when we have the means to do so. Once they are sufficiently enhanced, they can make decisions for themselves, including removing their augmentation."

 

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