Implanting mice with human tumors to test new anti-cancer drugs, injecting rats with human stem cells to find out how the brain repairs itself after a stroke, inserting human genes into the DNA of goats to make a protein that treats human blood clotting disorders; these are some examples of how science uses “animals containing human material” (ACHM). While they are invaluable tools for biomedical research, their use raises serious ethical questions, and a new report released on Thursday from the UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences says it is time to revisit these questions, and recommends the UK government set up an expert body to oversee experiments that use animals containing human material.

The report’s authors say that although the vast majority of research that uses animals containing human material, or “ACHM”, does not raise new ethical or regulatory questions, they are concerned that some sensitive areas like exploring cognition and reproduction, and giving animals human-like physical characteristics, need to be controlled.

Innovations in science can only flourish if scientists stay inside clearly defined ethical boundaries put in place with public support, they argue.

Professor Martin Bobrow, Emeritus Professor of Medical Genetics at the University of Cambridge, chaired the working group that wrote the report. He told the press that:

“This is a complex research area and there should be ongoing dialogue between scientists, regulators and the wider public to address emerging issues.”

The working group commissioned independent research, led by Ipsos MORI, to sample public opinion about ACHM. This showed that most people support scientific use of ACHM to improve human health and fight disease.

The working group also consulted academics, government, industry bodies, professionals, and animal welfare groups.

An example of a key area they highlighted that concerns scientists and the public, is using ACHM in brain research. What if, inserting human cells into the brains of animals results in animals having human-like “cerebral” functions: to be capable of consciousness, awareness and show human-like behaviour, they ask?

They suggest if the animal is a mouse embryo that has some human stem cells inserted into its brain, then it would grow and behave very much like a mouse. But, what if that animal were a pig, or a sheep? Does the size of animal make a difference?

Other areas of concern are experiments that result in the fertilization of human eggs in an animal, and changing animal characteristics to give them what are perceived to be unique human qualities such as a human-like face, skin, or even speech.

These, and other questions, need to be debated with scientists, ethicists and the public, says the report.

Even though the UK has one of the strictest systems of animal research regulation, scientists and the public agree that it must stay ahead of emerging practices.

Bobrow said he and his fellow authors recommend that the UK’s Home Office put in place “a national expert body, within the existing stringent system of animal research regulation, to provide specific advice on sensitive types of ACHM research”.

They urge the government to classify research using ACHM into 3 categories:

  1. OK to proceed under current regulation (the vast majority of experiments probably fall into this category).
  2. OK to proceed subject to scrutiny by the expert body (likely to be a limited number of experiments).
  3. Not OK to proceed, at least until the potential consequences are more fully understood (likely to be a very limited range of experiments).

Although he pointed out they are not aware of the third category of experiment taking place in the UK today, Bobrow said he and his colleagues urge that all ACHM research be reviewed regularly under this system.

“We have started the conversation now so that future decisions can be made with the support of both scientists and the public,” he added.

Professor Sir John Bell, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences and Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, said it was also important to coordinate the different UK bodies that are already involved in the regulation of ACHM, and that:

“The current transposition of the EU Directive on the use of animals in research provides an important opportunity for the Home Office to act on the Academy’s recommendations, and put in place a national expert body to advise on ACHM.”

Link to ACHM report and related downloads.

Source: The Academy of Medical Sciences (UK), BBC News.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD