A human-animal hybrid nonproliferation treaty?

While Congress mulls over the ethics of cutting-edge biotech, other countries are moving right along.

Published June 24, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

So many congressional hearings lately have focused on the housing crisis, credit crunch or energy prices that one tends to forget that there are other pressing matters to attend to. Like, how to stop an international arms race in biotechnological engineering, in which humans are redesigned with superior intelligence, human-animal hybrids start popping out of laboratories all over the planet, and direct brain-machine interaction becomes the stuff of daily life.

I know, I know, I read a lot of science fiction. Perhaps too much. But the hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade held last Thursday was all too real, even though my eyes did start to roll when the prospects of eternal life and an "end to scarcity" were raised. It's just not every day that you hear a panel discussant at a congressional hearing casually drop a line like this:

I mean, there are already monkeys that are being genetically manipulated to incorporate some of the genetic material of jelly fish, for example. That already exists. Last week, it was reported that South Koreans were moving forward on cloning a dog that had cancer-sniffing capability.

The question at the heart of the hearing was fascinating: How do we come to an international biotechnological equivalent of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, when there are widely varying views, globally speaking, on where to draw the line between what's kosher and what isn't when we start tinkering with how humans are put together at a fundamental genetic level?

This will be one of the great stories of the 21st century -- where commerce, human health, and the existential question of what defines "humanity" all converge. And it's going to get very messy, because coming to a consensus about what might constitute "genetics abuse" across the the world's disparate cultures and religions and nation-states is going to be a real challenge.

How do you balance, for example, maintaining a competitive position at the forefront of modern medical research with a particular set of values? From a globalization standpoint, the most interesting subplot of the hearing had to do with the impact that restrictive (or permissive) laws governing what kind of research is acceptable has on the flow of ideas and scientists across the planet. According to Jamie Metzl, vice president of the Asia Society, Singapore's relatively permissive laws on stem cell research have resulted in a steady flow of "our top scientists" to the island state, where they can work in such futuristic-sounding research institutes as "Biopolis." But Singapore can't rest easy. Earlier this year, said Metzl, "Britain passed a new embryology law that allows for the use of chimeras, human-animal hybrid embryos, up to 14 days for research purposes."

The Financial Times reported last week that scientists have already successfully created such hybrids:

Scientists at Newcastle University in the UK have already produced almost 300 hybrid embryos, by inserting human DNA into cow eggs, since their controversial research project started in January.

Lyle Armstrong, the project leader, told the BIO biotechnology conference in San Diego that the scientists were finding it easier than expected to make embryos for stem cell research, by replacing the nuclei of cow eggs with DNA from human skin cells.

Earlier this month, a study published in Cell Stem Cell concluded that countries that had "supportive and non-restrictive" polices on human embryonic stem cell science produced a greater output of related research compared to overall levels of research output than countries, such as the United States, that did restrict such science.

The five champions, in order: UK, Israel, China, Singapore and Australia.

And now U.S. politicians are discussing biotech research nonproliferation. Good luck. Once upon a time, the U.S. ruled the global science roost. But in today's world, if the U.S. doesn't build it, it will go elsewhere.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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