More Controversy in the Stem Cell Camp

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// January 6th, 2007 // Blog

UK Scientists wishing to generate a line of stem cells using human-bovine hybrid embryos, may be refused permission by the government.

Basically, the researchers plan to remove the nuclei of bovine ova, and replace them with nuclei from human cells to produce hybrid embryos. After a few cell divisions, the stem cells will be harvested and the embryos terminated.

I'm not sure what to think about this.

From a scientific point of view, this is an amazing solution to the problem of a low supply of donor human eggs.

From an Islamic point of view, embryonic stem-cell research is permissible, but the generation of human-animal hybrids is a whole new ball game!

There are two sources of DNA in the ovum: the nucleus, which controls cell growth and signalling; and the mitochondrion, which is the “power house” of the cell. The genetic information held within the nucleus is what makes a human, a human, and a cow, a cow. The information held within the mitochondrion only encodes for a small number of genes involved in the function of this particular organelle – it does not directly contribute to the development of the embryo.

Thus the hybrid embryo that the scientists wish to create will be almost entirely human, with the only bovine aspect being the mitochondrial DNA. Even if it was implanted into a woman and allowed to progress till term, i imagine the baby would be indistinguishable from any other human in terms of outward phenotype.

The important point to note here would be the potential difference between bovine and human mitochondrial function; if the bovine mitochondria did not meet the energy requirements of the human cell, then embryonic development may fail, or the resulting child may suffer from some kind of disorder.

Other than that, there should be no discernible issue, i.e., the kid will not grow horns and a tail!

In any case, the scientists are definitely not going to take it that far as that would certainly be illegal, as well as totally unnecessary.

This is one example of the kind of controversial research that has caused me to seriously consider Bioethics as a career option after i graduate, inshā’Allāh. As science progresses at an ever increasing rate, the question on everyone's lips is: how far can we go in the name of Medicine? With my knowledge of Biology, and my experience of Islam, i am hoping that this is a question i can help to answer in the near future, God-willing.

9 Responses to “More Controversy in the Stem Cell Camp”

  1. isha' says:

    I am not a biology expert(quite far from it) but I was wondering, if the mitochondria has a different chromosome, after cell division the new cells too have two different chromosome too. So the difference will stay. Will there be no problem in the nucleus chromosome and the mitochondria chromosome ‘talking’ to each other? As far as I know, they ‘talk’ to each other through some proteins. In this case can there be a language problem?

    Question 2: unrelated with this. but I came to know that results of parthenogenesis are always male. How is this possible when the female has only XX chromosome and the male has XY?

    (Even though that fits in. Isha'(peace and blessings upon him) was a male.)

  2. isha' says:

    I am not a biology expert(quite far from it) but I was wondering, if the mitochondria has a different chromosome, after cell division the new cells too have two different chromosome too. So the difference will stay. Will there be no problem in the nucleus chromosome and the mitochondria chromosome ‘talking’ to each other? As far as I know, they ‘talk’ to each other through some proteins. In this case can there be a language problem?

    Question 2: unrelated with this. but I came to know that results of parthenogenesis are always male. How is this possible when the female has only XX chromosome and the male has XY?

    (Even though that fits in. Isha'(peace and blessings upon him) was a male.)

  3. iMuslim says:

    Question 1: The mitochondria in all of our adult cells are derived from the ovum we developed from. So if the human-bovine hybrid was allowed to develop till term, the resulting baby would only have bovine mitochondria. There should be no problems with “communication” as you put it, as both the species concerned are eukaryotes, and so should deal with DNA in the same way.

    The only problem might be if bovine mitcondrion behave differently to that of human. I imagine there is a difference in sequence between bovine and human mtDNA. Mutations in human mtDNA have been associated with certain disorders. Thus the sequence of the bovine mtDNA may have an effect on the health of the cell, if it is significantly different to that of human mtDNA.

    Question 2: Parthenogenesis does not always produce males – it depends on the genetics of the species in question.

    I will quote from the article to show why parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons always leads to males:

    This is because Komodo dragons have W and Z chromosomes – females have one W and one Z, males have two Zs.

    The egg from the female carries one chromosome, either a W or Z, and when parthenogenesis takes place, either the W or Z is duplicated.

    This leads to eggs which are WW and ZZ. WW eggs are not viable, but ZZ eggs are, and lead to male baby Komodo dragons.”

    In humans and other mammals, males have XY and females have XX sex chromosomes. Thus if (and a BIG if!) a female was to reproduce via parthenogenenis, she would only produce females as all her eggs carry X chromosomes. Only sperm can supply the ‘Y’ chromosome required for male offspring.

    Thus ‘Isa (Jesus; peace be upon him) was not a result of parthenogenesis as we know it – he was simply a miracle of Allah, the Creator of all things.

  4. isha' says:

    1. So does that mean it is yet to know whether they will be happy with the arranged marriage?

    2. Ooops! Anyway, that I made a mistake proves nothing other than I am not an expert! :P

  5. isha' says:

    1. So does that mean it is yet to know whether they will be happy with the arranged marriage?

    2. Ooops! Anyway, that I made a mistake proves nothing other than I am not an expert! :P

  6. Faraz says:

    This is fascinating stuff. I once took a bioethics course, and it amazes me how far science has come, and how much further they could go were it not for the question of ethics. I believe that this is a good thing, that we stall scientific advancement in the face of ethical concerns, because it keeps the work honest.

    You said “the hybrid embryo that the scientists wish to create will be almost entirely human”. Doesn’t the “almost” in that sentence seem a little frightening? Would this “almost human” produce “almost human” children? And do we have empirical evidence that a child will grow up normally with the cow nuclei? Basically, do scientists know enough at this stage to determine that the mitochondrial DNA would have no discernible consequences on the child?

    I’ve always sucked at biology, so there are probably things I really don’t understand about all this… but your thoughts are appreciated.

  7. Lucyp says:

    Didn’t Josef Mengele do something similar, albeit with 1940’s technology, with human eggs and sperm from various creatures? Ethically a bit iffy methinks.

  8. Daniel says:

    I’m all for genetic tinkering! I’m sure we could dramatically and quickly improve on the primitive results achieved thus far from of thousands of years of human evolution. Cheers!

  9. iMuslim says:

    Hello all,

    Firstly, apologies if i have confused anyone with my entry. I am not used to explaining complex biology to layfolk, so please bear with me!

    Isha’:
    1. So does that mean it is yet to know whether they will be happy with the arranged marriage?

    As far as i am aware, they have not carried out any trials, as they are still in the stages of applying for permission from the UK government.

    Faraz:

    So many questions!

    The aim of creating such hybrids has nothing to do with reproduction. The scientists simply wish to generate a line of embryonic stem cells to be used in medical research, such as Parkinson’s disease. All the hybrid embryos will be terminated when they are still a ball of cells and none will be implanted.

    Thus the ethics of this case is less dodgy then it first appears. If the embryos are never going to be implanted, what is the harm?

    Another thing – if UK scientists are allowed to extract stem cells from unwanted IVF embryos, what need is there to produce such human-animal hybrids? How many stem cell lines do they need?

    I think there are some stem cell folks in my building; i’ll bend their ears on this subject next week, inshallah.

    Lucy:

    The experiment you describe (cross-species fertilisation) is very different to what i discussed.

    In cross-species fertilisation, one is attempting to produce a half-human, half-x creature by fertilising human eggs with animal sperm (or vica-versa). This is completely “whack”, totally unethical and highly unlikely to work!

    In the procedure i described in my entry, the genetic material (the nucleus) will be entirely human-derived, thus the embryos will be human. The only animal component will be the mitochondria; the cell organelles that are responsible for energy conversion and metabolism.

    Daniel:

    The human genome is very, very, VERY complicated. We are merely at the tip of the enormous iceberg that is human genetics, thus tinkering with the genome is ill-advised at present. We’ve been messing with the mouse genome for a while now, and we still have no clue how the little rascals work!

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