Scientists at Stanford University are urging the Obama administration to lift a funding ban on a type of stem cell research that results in partly human creatures called "chimeras."
The research could save thousands of lives if properly funded, the scientists argued Friday in an open letter and in a meeting at National Institutes of Health headquarters.
Chimeras, which are named after hybrid creatures from Greek mythology, are animals that have been genetically engineered using a mixture of stem cells from different sources. The funding ban only applies to chimeras that have been created with human stem cells at an embryonic level of development, which is a relatively new bioengineering technique.
"The current NIH restriction serves as a significant impediment to major scientific progress in the fields of stem cell research," the proponents wrote in the letter, which was published by Science magazine. "[The ban] should be lifted as soon as possible."
The authors say that the research could lead to an "endless supply of organs for transplantation," thus putting an end to some fatal diseases as well as long donor lists. Scientists have also pointed to advancements made in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease as indicators of stem cell research’s "tremendous potential."
Some critics, however, argue that the research is immoral and could result in the creation of animals with human-like cognitive function. Animal rights groups have also opposed the research, citing the possibility of animal cruelty in scientific studies.
But proponents of chimeric research have said these fears are largely unfounded.
"We are witnessing a rush during the end of the current administration to make changes to the regulatory system," said David Magnus, a professor of biomedical ethics at Stanford and one of the authors of the open letter. "In the 10 years since Stem Cell Research Oversight Committees have been introduced and evaluating chimeras, there is no evidence at all that they have failed to ensure ethically conducted research."
The National Institutes of Health declared a moratorium on funding for research in which human cells are introduced into non-human embryos back in late September, citing the need to consider ethical implications and animal welfare concerns.
"Advances in cellular technologies and gene editing present opportunities to address interesting scientific questions," the NIH said in a statement. "They also illustrate that the time is ripe to proactively consider whether additional ethical considerations should be put into place to guide the science moving forward."
The abrupt halt on all funding sent shockwaves throughout the scientific community, with many biomedical researchers scrambling to find alternative backing for planned studies. Some scientists also worried that the ban could tarnish other projects using non-human chimeras, which have long been used in a range of scientific studies.
"By eliminating federal funding for all aspects of this research, the NIH casts a shadow of negativity toward all experiments involving chimera studies regardless of whether human cells are involved," said assistant professor of medicine Sean Wu, who is a co-author of the Friday letter.
The National Institutes of Health has maintained that the ban could be temporary, and scientists hope that Friday's workshop could mark the end of the funding restrictions.
"The moratorium took place without public comment or with any transparency," Magnus said. "I am cautiously hopeful that the results of today’s workshop, along with feedback from the scientific community, will convey adequately to NIH that their well intentioned but misguided action should be reversed."