“Be careful what you wish for, it just might come true.” These words might well be the best guide as humankind gains the power to transform life on this planet in very fundamental ways.

According to author Emily Anthes, a brave new world of transgenic species is already in existence. Researchers are already implanting human genes or cells in animals to modify particular characteristics. For example, implanting human brain cells produces mice who perform better than other mice in learning and memory tests.

Anthes’ new book, Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, looks at some of the directions taken by the new technologies, producing glow-in-the-dark fish, cyborg spy drone beetles and prosthetic limbs and tails for dogs and dolphins.

In conversation with Daniel Faggella, Anthes discussed the possibilities as well as the ethical dilemmas opened up by genetic tinkering and the production of transgenic creatures. In keeping with what might hopefully be called a “millennial sensibility”, the conversation focused on the discovery of ameliorative  procedures by means of healing animal suffering rather than by inflicting pain on animals as traditional animal experimentation has done.

A good example is the development of osteo-integrated prosthetic limbs, which were first successfully tested in veterinary medicine. A BBC tv series – The Bionic Vet – about the work of Noel Fitzpatrick features Oscar the cat who was given two prosthetic legs after he lost his own in an accident (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t0rkh). Itap prosthetics are permanently attached to the bone and grow through the skin. Prosthetic paws can then be attached to the limb. The problem  of potential infections at the points of contact between metal and skin was solved by studying deer antlers. The base of the antlers consists of very porous material which allows the skin to grow into it, creating a natural seal. Itap prosthetics are designed with numerous little pores or holes at the point of contact with  the skin, which allows skin, tissue and collagen to grow into it during the healing process (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0607/06070401). Itap prosthetics are now in human trials, which have also been very successful and represent a major advance over conventional prosthetics.

Another instance of treatments that originate in veterinary medicine and then transfer cross-species to humans is the use of gene therapy to treat conditions like retinal degenerative disease in dogs. Due to a gene mutation which prevents the correct production of a protein, dogs suffering from this disease are blind. Researchers in PA injected the correct version of the protein into the retina, leading to a complete and permanent cure for blindness in the dogs treated. Human vision is more complex, but retinal gene therapy has been successful in clinical trials in partially restoring sight.

Genetic engineering, gene splicing and experiments in structured evolution are already breaking down species barriers by implanting human genes in animals. This raises, as Dan said, “issues of infinite ethical gravity…tampering with the consciousness of animals.” (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201311/frankensteins-cat-biotechnology-strange-creatures-and-us). Anthes feels that while genetic engineering is already a reality and cannot be stopped, there are probably some kinds of experiments that should for now be off limits. The primary purpose of the research is to  understand how human cognition, learning and memory work but the process creates creatures that are stranded between species. Anthes argues that the determining criteria should be the welfare of  the animal concerned, and that this can be best understood through ecological  and zoological research to better understand how nature works.

Some of the ethical questions are framed very starkly by Dan: “What happens when we create animals that have human-like levels of consciousness and sentience? What kinds of rights should they have? Should modified animals have more rights than unmodified animals? Should experiments be permissible if they promote the welfare of the animals concerned but not otherwise? How are the animals’s best interests to be determined?” While the questions are stark, finding the right answers depends on constant vigilance and self-questioning “to create a better world not just a smarter one”.

Some researchers have argued for the human responsibility to “raise” or enhance animal sentience. Anthes mentions the blog of Bioethicist George Dvorsky, who’s covered a number of similar topics in depth. These questions merged with continuing debates on animal personhood at the Personhood Beyond the Human conference in December 2013. The conference was co-sponsored by the Nonhuman Rights Project and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies in collaboration with the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics (http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/dvorsky20131210).

The potential applications of the new bio technologies are as numerous as the ethical concerns. One area in which they merge comfortably is the development medical treatments for humans and animals. The advancements in gene therapy may make it a promising field for start ups.

Article written by Shaubh Mathurs, writer for TechEmergence.

Image credit: Photobucket.

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