Well, here’s a disturbing “science run amok” update if ever there was one.
STAT News reports that scientists are in the process of having human brain “organoids” — tiny masses of human brain tissue created from stem cells that could function like actual human brains — implanted into lab rats and mice.
Researchers hope this project will yield tremendous knowledge that can be put toward medical advances, but obviously the ethical questions involved are equally tremendous:
These micro quasi-brains are revolutionizing research on human brain development and diseases from Alzheimer’s to Zika, but the headlong rush to grow the most realistic, most highly developed brain organoids has thrown researchers into uncharted ethical waters. Like virtually all experts in the field, neuroscientist Hongjun Song of the University of Pennsylvania doesn’t “believe an organoid in a dish can think,” he said, “but it’s an issue we need to discuss.”
Those discussions will become more urgent after this weekend. At a neuroscience meeting, two teams of researchers will report implanting human brain organoids into the brains of lab rats and mice, raising the prospect that the organized, functional human tissue could develop further within a rodent. Separately, another lab has confirmed to STAT that it has connected human brain organoids to blood vessels, the first step toward giving them a blood supply.
That is necessary if the organoids are to grow bigger, probably the only way they can mimic fully grown brains and show how disorders such as autism, epilepsy, and schizophrenia unfold. But “vascularization” of cerebral organoids also raises such troubling ethical concerns that, previously, the lab paused its efforts to even try it.
Previous, unreported attempts to implant human brain organoids in mice resulted in mice that survived for up to two months.
“These little suckers are not going to say ‘Hi,’” Stanford University bioethicist Hank Greely says of the limited complexity a brain can reach in an organism so small. Still, he says, this undertaking poses the disturbing question of “whether you are creating something human-ish that you have to take seriously in terms of according it dignity and respect — and figuring out what that even means.”
At the moment, that “figuring out” is so undeveloped that the National Institute of Health has no ban on the books against specifically implanting human organoids into animals, although such a ban does exist on funding research to implant human stem cells into early vertebrate embryos.
The biggest point of contention, of course, is whether this would constitute, or future iterations of the work could lead to, something like the consciousness of a human being trapped in a rodent’s body. A neurosurgeon participating in the experiments, Dr. Isaac Chen, suggests such fears are overblown the human organoid enters “a specific region of already developed brain.”
However, Allen Institute for Brain Science president Christof Koch says such concerns won’t be so easily dismissible if this experiment leads to attempting the same thing with animals more sophisticated than rats: “It raises the question, what is it conscious of?”
Indeed, and one thing is certain: the more secular America becomes, the less interested America’s scientific elites will be interested in stopping to factor little things like ethics into their actions.
Hat tip: Fox News