Wednesday, 3 August 2011

'Splicing mice'; regulating human and animal mixtures

By Gill Haddow, Ann Bruce, Jane Calvert, Shawn Harmon, Wendy Marsden

As the Scottish poet Rabbie Burns warned us, "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley." (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go oft awry.) 

The fact is that progress is rarely predictable, hardly ever linear and most importantly, never able to be undone. However, there are certain cases in innovation where although the future is murky, one can usually find some precedent in the past from which to learn lessons.

As the recent Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) report, 'Animals containing human material' (July 2011) reminded us, this is particularly apparent in the context of regulating mixed human and animal embryos.

We addressed this issue in our recent article 'Not human enough to be human but not animal enough to be animal', published in New Genetics and Society, and argued that the Human Fertilisation Embryology Authority was the regulatory organisation not best suited to regulate cybrids (that is human DNA placed in an animal egg for research purposes). We suggested that in order for the HFEA to regulate in the area of cybrids regulators needed to classify a cybrid as ‘human’ in order to regulate it, as opposed to classifying it as animal which would therefore have been under the jurisdiction of the Animal Procedure Committee (APC).

To illustrate the regulatory landscape, such as it is, we constructed the following chart, which shows the regulatory or advisory body responsible for each human-animal combination:

It would appear the AMS has implicitly picked up on the case of GM animals and hybrids (cases 2 and 4 above) suggesting that they require a special regulatory body to oversee developments in these areas. The AMS has (quite rightly, in our view) removed two 'combinations' from the APC and advised the creation of a specialist body to oversee such work. 

We applaud this decision and would suggest that commonsense might also dictate this regulatory body would oversee all human and animal mixtures regardless of the direction, nature, amount or purpose of the transfer. 

It is not the case that we see oversight or regulation either as a hindrance or inhibitor to progress in this area. It is true that it can be viewed as a precautionary step to prevent social or ethical transgressions in the future because, to us, it is an opportunity to compare and contrast lessons from the past, from equivalences in the present, in order to remove some of the unexpectedness from the unpredictability of the future. Yet, knowing as we do that progress will not be predictable, nor innovation unprecedented, we need to look 'both' ways before stepping over gaps. 

Ending on a more blue-skies note, the hubristic desire for control over 'nature' will always be accompanied with fear because the paradox is that that the more we do 'manage nature' the more uncertain and contingent it becomes: “Advancing technology changes everything that is into our object of choice…[I]f human nature itself becomes makeable, it can no longer naively be laid down as the norm” (Swierstra, Van Est, & Boenink, 2009).

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