A research breakthrough made in Japan is raising concerns in other countries. Scientists plan to introduce a human stem cell into the embryo of an animal—most likely a pig—to create what is termed a “chimeric embryo” that can be grown into a fully functional human organ.
When the animal is slaughtered, the organ will then be harvested and transplanted into a human being to replace a defective one.
“This recommendation is a very important step forward and one that has taken us three years to achieve,” Professor Hiromitsu Nakauchi, head of the center for stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at the University of Tokyo, told The Daily Telegraph.
As a first step in the completed process, the research team has already succeeded in injecting stem cells from rats into the embryos of mice that had been genetically altered.
“We can apply the same principles to human stem cells and pigs, although the [government] guidelines have not permitted us to do this yet,” he said.
The guidelines Nakauchi referred to permits scientists to develop chimeric embryos in a laboratory conditions for a maximum of 14 days. Any further steps in the cloning process are prohibited.
These guidelines are soon to change.
Within 12 months, the Japanese government is expected to allow Nakauchi’s to produce the first pig carrying a human organ. Nakauchi believes that this process can be produced “quite quickly, because the technique has been established already.”
The first test of an organ to be grown is planned to be a human pancreas grown inside a pig as it is a relatively easy organ to create and the chance of complications due to rejection is thought to be low. Prof. Nakauchi believes that taking this first step will bring relief to millions of people with diabetes.
Creating kidneys and a human heart will be far more complicated, he said, but are feasible. Nakauchi believes that these organs may be mass-produced in as little as five years.
The eventual goal of this program is to grow multiple organs in a donor animal then harvest them all at the same time.
The idea has faced opposition in other countries, and the future of this procedure is still up for debate.
Among the questions being raised are “What are the ethics involved with the use of stem cells?” “Are these embryonic or adult stem cells?” “Will “designer organs” be grown in the future (e.g., bigger hearts for athletes, or other specialized organs for performance enhancements)?”
These questions and other need to be answered before mankind goes down a path from which it cannot return.
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