Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Bush hates biotech?

I'll have to admit that I didn't watch of the State of the Union this year. For some reason videotape of last Friday's Stargate Atlantis seemed much more compelling. The addresses are boringly predictable: "The State of the Union is strong" blah blah blah "winning the war on terrorism" blah blah blah "increase in American jobs" blah blah blah "no child left behind" blah blah blah "God Bless America". The pundits and newspapers pick out any interesting bits from all the junk.

I found one of Bush's statements was particularly interesting:
A hopeful society has institutions of science and medicine that do not cut ethical corners, and that recognize the matchless value of every life. Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids, and buying, selling, or patenting human embryos. Human life is a gift from our Creator -- and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale. (Full Text)
The bit about human-animal hybrids* was, of course, immediate fodder for comics like John Stewart . Now, I suspect what most people think of when they hear "human-animal hybrid" is something along the lines of the beast-men in Well's The Island of Dr. Moreau or the man with a fly's head in The Fly.

Of course, reality is much more complex. The biotechnology industry uses human - non-human animal hybrids all of the time for research and for medical purposes. An actual ban on such hybrids would be a major setback on biomedicine in the United States. Here are some examples that show that modern biomedicine uses hybrids that range from almost entirely "animal" to almost entirely "human":

• PZ Myers points out that an animal model for Down's syndrome involves the insertion of human genes into mice. Mouse models for Alzheimer's disease, HIV infection, sickle cell disease and many other human ailments have been generated by either adding to or replacing mouse genes with human genes. These certainly count as mouse-human hybrids that are mostly mouse.

• Transgenic animals have been engineered to express human proteins for therapeutic use. A few examples are chickens that lay eggs containing human antibodies and cows, sheep and goats that produce human antibodies, insulin, blood clotting factors and other pharmaceuticals in their milk . Like the mouse models of disease, I wouldn't say that these transgenic animals are particularly human.

• Xenotransplantation is the use of animal organs in humans. For example, cow and pig heart valves have been used for decades to replace defective human heart valves. On the cutting edge are researchers engineering pigs to make their organs more compatible for human transplantation. There are a number of potential risks, such as the possible cross-species transfer of viruses, with this approach.

Does Bush actually want all of these types of human-animal hybrids banned? I suspect not. It's more likely a case of Bush (and his speechwriters) not having a clue about the larger implications of his statements. In the cases I cited above, there isn't much question as to whether the resulting hybrid is still "human" or "animal". Questions of ethics arise, however, if, at some time in the future, biotechnology allows the lines to blur. The mention may have been inspired by the attempted patenting of a human-ape hybrid. If a fertilized human egg is combined with chimpanzee DNA, is it still a human? Those that subscribe to the belief that human life begins at fertilization would say yes. (I say it's not that simple)

Of course, it's silly to put any stock in anything the President said in his address. The Whitehouse has already clarified that Bush's vow to reduce imports of Middle East oil by 75% were not meant to be taken literally. Some of the other things he said also need to be taken with a grain of salt, due to the selective use of statistics. The mention of "egregious uses of medical research" was simply to generate a round of applause, not the indication of any well thought out policy.

* To be strictly correct, human-animal hybrids is non-sensical, because humans are, of course, animals. I'm using the term "animal" as the equivalent of "non-human animal", as I assume the President meant.

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