In ten days time the much anticipated summer blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes will open in cinemas across the UK. The film looks at how the genetic modification of one chimpanzee creates a new-breed of ape that eventually leads to a great ape uprising against the human race. This may sound like a work of fiction but experts say the notion is not as far-fetched as you might think.
Scientists from the Academy of Medical Sciences have produced a report which is calling for tough new rules to prevent this precise scenario becoming a reality. The report acknowledges the “Frankenstein fear” that humanising animals might lead to the creation of “monsters”.
Professor Martin Bobrow, a medical geneticist at Cambridge University and co-author of the report says we are close to pushing ethical boundaries.
He said: “The fear is that if you start putting very large numbers of human brain cells into the brains of primates suddenly you might transform the primate into something that has some of the capacities that we regard as distinctively human – speech, or other ways of being able to manipulate or relate to us. These possibilities that are at the moment largely explored in fiction, we need to start thinking about now.”
One area of concern is “Category Three” experiments which may raise “very strong ethical concerns” and should be banned. One example given is the creation of primates with distinctly human characteristics, such as speech.
Medical research on monkeys is lawful in the UK and last week an independent report (Bateson) published by various biomedical scientists argued that testing should still continue despite the fact that one in ten studies had no scientific benefit or medical benefit whatsoever. Testing on great apes however is illegal in the UK but it still continues in the USA.
Although the Academy of Medical Science’s reports says there are no concerns about the way current experiments are carried out, they did warn that with the speed at which science is progressing, extra care needs to be taken.
If in the near future, researchers are allowed to play God, they could end up creating animals containing human material that would challenge the regulatory threshold. So stop this from happening the authors have said they’d like to see a new body of experts within the Home Office to monitor experiments.
In the last few decades we have seen mice modified to carry human genes to the point where a human ear was grown on subject’s back and goats created with a human gene are used to produce a human protein that treats blood clotting disorders.
Professor Thomas Baldwin, professor of philosophy at the University of York, and one of the authors also recommended applying the “Great Ape Test”. If modified monkeys began to acquire abilities similar to those of chimpanzees, it was time to “hold off”.
He added: “If it’s heading in that direction, red lights start flashing you really do not want to go down that road.”