I didn’t listen to the State of the Union Address last night, preferring to maintain my equanimity by attending a talk on quantum physics, but I knew I could trust my readers to email me with choice weird science bits. I’m getting a lot of “WTF?” email about this statement from Bush:
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.
But guess what? Creating chimeras is legitimate and useful scientific research; it’s really happening. Of course, it isn’t with the intent of creating monstrous half-animal/half-human slaves or something evil like that, and scientists are well aware (or should be well aware) of the ethical concerns, and it’s the topic of ongoing debate. Let’s consider one recent example of such an experiment.
Down syndrome is a very common genetic disorder caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21. That kind of genetic insult causes a constellation of problems: mild to moderate mental retardation, heart defects, and weakened immune systems, and various superficial abnormalities. It’s also a viable defect, and produces walking, talking, interacting human beings who are loved by their friends and families, who would really like to be able to do something about those lifespan-reducing health problems. We would love to have an animal model of Down syndrome, so that, for example, we could figure out exactly what gene overdose is causing the immune system problems or the heart defects, and develop better treatments for them.
So what scientists have been doing is inserting human genes into mice, to produce similar genetic overdoses in their development. As I reported before, there have been partial insertions, but now a team of researchers has inserted a complete human chromosome 21 into mouse embryonic stem cells, and from those generated a line of aneuploid mice that have many of the symptoms of Down syndrome, including the heart defects. They also have problems in spatial learning and memory that have been traced back to defects in long-term potentiation in the central nervous system.
These mice are a tool to help us understand a debilitating human problem.
George W. Bush would like to make them illegal.
He’s trusting that everyone will think he is banning monstrous crimes against nature, but what he’s really doing is targeting the weak and the ill, blocking useful avenues of research that are specifically designed to help us understand human afflictions. His message isn’t “We aren’t going to let the mad scientists make monsters!”, it’s “We aren’t going to let the doctors help those ‘retards.'”
Once again, the ignorance and the bigotry of the religious right wins out over reason and humanitarianism. I think I know who the real pig-men are.
O’Doherty A, Ruf S, Mulligan C, Hildreth V, Errington ML, Cooke S, Sesay A, Modino S, Vanes L, Hernandez D, Linehan JM, Sharpe PT, Brandner S, Bliss TV, Henderson DJ, Nizetic D, Tybulewicz VL, Fisher EM. (2005) An aneuploid mouse strain carrying human chromosome 21 with Down syndrome phenotypes. Science 309(5743):2033-7.