THAT HUMAN-PIG HYBRID
It’s going to take a really long time to get from the new reports of human-pig hybrid embryos to the work’s ultimate goal, which is organs for transplant into human patients. The researchers were quoted by Sarah Kaplan at Speaking of Science as pointing out that the hybrid was “highly inefficient.”
Which may be just as well, because it’s also going to take a really long time to resolve the ethical/political objections to creating the hybrids. If ever. Even though the supply of human organs available with current systems for transplant is not enough and never will be.
Researchers at the Salk Institute reported in a Cell paper that they had achieved human-pig chimeras, tissue containing DNA from both species, by injecting human stem cells into pig embryos. The injected cells were induced pluripotent stem cells, developed human stem cells reprogrammed to behave like cells with the potential to develop into any kind of cell. The chimera contained about 1 human cell to every 100,000 pig cells. Now that’s inefficient!
The work was enormously complex, involving mice and rats too, and has far to go. Get technical details from Rachael Rettner at LiveScience, Beth Mole at Ars Technica, and an infographic from Amanda Montañez at Scientific American.
Stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler notes at his blog The Niche that even if researchers are able to produce transplantable organs eventually, they will probably still contain some pig cells and therefore might trigger immune system rejection.
Knoepfler urges tackling the ethical issues soon. The biggest one is the need to allow the chimeras to develop normally so their organs will be mature enough for transplant. Others he notes include preventing human cells from getting into the chimera’s brain and eggs or sperm.
Animal advocate and former neuroscientist Lori Marino argues at STAT that human-animal chimeras are by no means the only way to fix the problem of an adequate supply of organs for transplant. “As we continue down the path of this unprecedented manipulation of sentient beings and pour funding into it, we simultaneously limit funding for alternative solutions to our health problems, including prevention, consensual human trials, incentives for organ donation, microchip testing, and in vitro research.”
The Salk work was funded privately. [UPDATE: NIH tells me I got it wrong, and that this is correct: “While NIH funds certain types of chimera research, it has a funding moratorium on research where human stem cells are introduced very early in animal embryonic development. the Federal government forbids taxpayer money from being used to research human chimeras. In a dozen nations, including the US, research on all-human embryos must conclude, and the embryos destroyed, before 14 days after fertilization. NIH may not fund research in which human embryos are created for research purposes or research in which human embryos are destroyed.”]
THIS WEEK IN THE POLITICS OF SCIENCE
Ooof, another week of mind-boggled watching as the TrumPets pummel US science and medicine.
You probably don’t need to be told that the Trump executive order barring immigration of refugees and those from 7 majority-Muslim countries–temporarily, it is said–caused protests nationwide. But none were more strident than those from scientists and the biggest names in the tech industry, among them Apple, Google and Facebook to Microsoft, Airbnb and Box. (Edward, CNET)
The new rules are already having a chilling effect on US science. (Julia Belluz, Vox) One in six U.S. scientists–5 million people–is an immigrant. Most are naturalized citizens, but many hold green cards or long-term visas. STEM fields are the engine of the American economy, one of them says. “That engine has gotten so big and so powerful that it can’t be fueled by talent within the U.S. itself.” (Amelia Urry, Grist)
The immigration restrictions are disrupting the field of genomics and the “professional and personal lives of scientists with valid visas or green cards who were planning to start new jobs, travel to conferences, give talks abroad, visit family, or receive visitors.” (Julia Karow, GenomeWeb) They also fear long-term effects on US leadership in science.
Nearly one in four US docs was trained abroad. The new orders can create physician shortages and confusion in graduate medical education. (Joe Elia, NEJM Journal Watch)
The Psyche of Donald Trump
The topic of the new President’s mental health has surfaced once more. It arose during the campaign last summer and was mostly decried, as I wrote here at On Science Blogs.
US psychiatrists are forbidden by “the Goldwater Rule” from discussing the mental condition of public figures they have not examined. There’s no such explicit rule in the UK, leading Trish Greenhalgh to her interpretation of the official guidance for docs: “in extreme circumstances . . . it may occasionally be justified to raise concerns about a public figure (for example, when the individual is relentlessly pursuing a course of action that places many lives at risk).”
Greenhalgh notes in her post at the British Medical Journal blog The BMJ, however, that such a statement would be a clinically informed speculation, not a clinical opinion. But she kinda sorta contradicts that distinction in her conclusion: “I believe that there is no absolute bar to a doctor suggesting that in his or her clinical opinion, it would be in the public interest for a particular public figure to undergo “occupational health” checks to assess their fitness to hold a particular office.”
At STAT, the world-class medical journalist Sharon Begley persuaded several shrinks to skirt the Goldwater Rule. She notes that the mental health experts displayed a lot of agreement in analyzing Trump’s traits, for example that he displays “a desperate need to keep from feeling, even fleetingly, that he might not be superior to everyone else.”
But she also reported that they couldn’t rule out the possibility that Trump’s behavior, however unique in Presidential history and discombobulating in American life, is “part of an intentional political strategy, and not a reflection of particular mental states.” Begley notes that similar behavior has served Trump well in his business career.
There’s another reason Trump’s antics can be viewed as perfectly normal (for him.) The American Psychiatric Association insists that a diagnosis of mental illness is only kosher if a patient’s behavior causes him/her “clinically significant distress or impairment.” In Trump’s case, of course, there’s no evidence of any distress at all. Au, as they say, contraire.
The sources Begley consulted may have been denied the opportunity to pin a diagnostic label on Trump, but they were perfectly happy to explore at length his “blazing narccisism” and “deep satisfaction from ‘abusing and hurting people.'”
Juicy stuff. But not comforting.