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After two years, has experimenting on human life lost its power to disgust?

By Michael Cook - posted Thursday, 21 August 2003

A university laboratory in Shanghai has created hundreds of human-rabbit hybrid embryos, the world's leading science journal, Nature, announced last week.

Yawn. So what? Delete.

That was the reaction of the Australian media to one of the most bizarre and horrifying developments in science in recent times. This was an event that should have been greeted with gasps of disgust. Instead, a story, which Nature treated as a sensational exclusive, was deemed so boring that it could hardly find a berth in the Australian media.


Isn't something dreadfully amiss with our moral antennae when a credible source opens a window on the future of science, spies an ethical catastrophe - and journalists ignore it?

Here's what has happened.

A US-trained scientist at Shanghai Second Medical University, Dr Huizhen Sheng, has published a peer-reviewed article in an international journal based in China describing how she created 400 embryos by injecting human DNA into the eggs of New Zealand rabbits. One hundred of these survived for several days.

Sheng says she won't be implanting these embryos in human surrogate mothers to create carrot-loving babies with floppy ears and big front teeth. Her interest is extracting embryonic stem cells - ultimately to work miracles such as getting Christopher Reeve to walk again, curing juvenile diabetes or reversing Parkinson's disease.

Her overseas colleagues were a tad sceptical about her work, but very interested. If her results are verified, they will mark a significant advance in cloning technology.

First, they show that it is possible to "reprogram" already developed adult cells so that they can revert to stem cells that are capable of forming any cell type in the body. Stem cell scientists describe this as the "holy grail" of their specialty.


Second, it shows that hybrid species are possible. Hitherto, efforts to cross humans with other species have failed because mitochondrial DNA in the animal egg cell reacts negatively with human DNA.

And finally, it implies that the "therapeutic cloning" touted by Professor Alan Trounson and other scientists in Australia could be managed on an industrial scale. There is no limit to the number of eggs New Zealand rabbits can produce - human eggs are far harder to obtain.

None of the cloning experts interviewed by various newspapers overseas had ethical qualms about the hybrid embryos.
On the contrary, Robin Lovell-Badge, of Britain's National Institute for Medical Research, said he was impressed.

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Article edited by Mark Stiffle.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was first published in The Age on 19 August 2003.

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About the Author

Michael Cook edits the Internet magazine MercatorNet and the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

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