Just because we can, does it mean we should?

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There’s a saying that goes “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. I think this applies to a lot of things in life: serving latte’s in avocados, making pizza bases out of cauliflower, creating GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for disgraced football players……I could go on.

This phrase also comes to mind when we’re talking about scientific research.

For example, a couple of weeks ago I was reading about experiments to create human-monkey chimeras. Chimeras are organisms that are made of cells from two or more individuals. They can occur naturally – for example, when cells from twins fuse together. They can also be created in a lab by injecting stem cells from one individual into a developing embryo. In the research I was reading about, the cells and embryo used were from different species. In other words, these chimeras are a human-monkey hybrid, made of some cells from each. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to create an animal that could grow organs for human transplantation.

It seems like a noble goal – after all, thousands of people die each year waiting for an organ transplant. So why is it controversial? The problem is we don’t have the ability to restrict the growth of the human cells to specific organs in the chimera. For now, these chimeras have only been allowed to grow for a few weeks. But what if they were allowed to fully develop, and we found that the human cells had formed parts of the brain, the nervous system? Could we have animals that start to show human-like thought? Human-like behaviour?

Similar research has been carried out to create human-pig and human-sheep chimeras. And with changes to Japanese research guidelines, researchers are looking at introducing human cells into mice, creating human-mice chimeras. The creation of these human-animal chimeras is just one example of scientific research throwing up a host of ethical issues. The births of the first gene-edited babies in China last year was another. The development of artificial intelligence with inbuilt racism or bias is yet another.

We’re living in a world where science and technology are advancing at a rapid pace. New discoveries and new technologies are going to continually challenge our existing values and legal and ethical frameworks. As scientists, we need to think really carefully about the implications of the work we do – and always ask ourselves, “Just because I can, does it mean I should?”

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