Monkeying around in lab could create 'Planet of Apes'
Published 22/07/2011 | 05:00
Action is needed now to prevent nightmarish 'Planet Of The Apes' science ever turning from fiction to fact, according to a group of eminent experts.
Their report calls for a new rules to supervise sensitive research that involves humanising animals.
One area of concern is experiments which the report describes as "lacking compelling scientific justification or raise very strong ethical concerns" and should be banned.
An example given is the creation of primates with distinctly human characteristics, such as speech.
Exactly the same scenario is portrayed in the new movie 'Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes', in which scientists searching for an Alzheimer's cure create a new breed of ape with human-like intelligence.
The report also acknowledges the "Frankenstein fear" that humanising animals might lead to the creation of "monsters".
Currently research involving great apes, such as chimpanzees, is outlawed in the UK. But it continues in many other countries including the US, and British scientists are permitted to experiment on monkeys.
Professor Thomas Baldwin, a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences working group that produced the report, said the possibility of humanised apes should be taken seriously.
"The fear is that if you start putting very large numbers of human brain cells into the brains of primates suddenly you might transform the primate into something that has some of the capacities that we regard as distinctively human, speech, or other ways of being able to relate to us," he told a briefing in London.
"These possibilities that are at the moment largely explored in fiction we need to start thinking about now." Prof Baldwin, professor of philosophy at the University of York, recommended applying the "Great Ape Test". If modified monkeys began to acquire abilities similar to those of chimps, it was time to "hold off".
"If it's heading in that direction, red lights start flashing," said Prof Baldwin. "You really do not want to go down that road."
In the US, scientists have already implanted human embryonic stem cells -- which can develop into any part of the human body -- into mouse embryos.
The mouse cells rapidly outgrew the human stem cells, so that only a tiny proportion of the embryos ended up "human".
Working group member Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, a leading geneticist from the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research, said this was not surprising given the differences between mice and humans.
But he added: "If you were to do that experiment with a non-human primate you can't predict the result.
"It could be that you get a low contribution (of human cells) or you can control the contribution and end up with an animal that... wouldn't challenge, too much, public values. But on the other hand we can't predict that at all now.
"It's unpredictable and you could end up with an embryo that is too much human-like."
A public poll carried out for the report showed that most people accepted animals being modified with human cells to support medical research. But there were real concerns from the public and scientists about experiments involving the brain, fertility, and "uniquely human" features such as facial shape, skin texture or speech.
"We all laugh when we see cartoons of talking meerkats," said Prof Lovell-Badge. "If we were actually doing that in the labs I don't think people would be so happy."