Medical research dating back to more than a century, with the accredited advances made in the development of drugs and treatments, involved to a great extent the use of animals. Currently, there are several alternatives to animal testing such as in vitro cell culture, microdosing, in silico computer simulation and non-invasive imaging technique. However, some emerging studies in the field of Medical Science are still utilizing animal models in research. This paper focuses on the concepts of xenotransplantation, cloning and stem cell research, taking into cognizance the possible positive impact they will make, when fully established, in improving the quality of human life, preventing and providing cure for terminal diseases or genetic disorders and invariably, extending the human life span.
It goes further to discuss the existing bodies and frameworks currently regulating on-going studies on these areas, as well as evaluate the complex ethical issues emanating from these researches as it affects both animals and humans. Animal rights, and fundamental ethical principles of bioethics and human rights; which include respect for individual vulnerability and personal integrity, justice, respect of cultural diversity, consent and non-maleficence cannot be disregarded.
There arises therefore, the need to strike a balance on the pros and cons of these potential medical procedures to ensure that ethical boundaries are not trespassed. Open honest debate is imperative to keep the ethicists, medical experts and the public abreast of the ethical concerns of these practices.
The use of animals for biomedical research dates back to several centuries. Animal research has had a vital role in many scientific and medical advances of the past century and continues to aid our understanding of various diseases (Festing and Wilkinson, 2007).
Currently, amidst so much debate on the continued use of animals in medical research, the practice still trends as alternatives apparently do not suffice. Xenotransplantation, stem cell research and cloning are emerging areas in biomedical research that utilize animals for their studies. These practices offer promise and prospects of solution to a barrage of health issues and concerns for the human race. However, a lot of ethical issues have been raised regarding these practices. The question then arises, if these practices should be allowed to continue and if in the affirmative, are the set regulations guiding them enough to abate ethical dilemmas? There is therefore need to understand these medical research activities and the regulating policies guiding them, evaluate the ethics issues raised and attempt to analyze the implications on humans and animals.
Xenotransplantation can be defined as any procedure that involves the transplantation, implantation or infusion of live cells, tissues, or organs from one species to another. It is differentiated from autotransplantation and allotransplantation which involve transplants in the same individual or within the same species respectively. Therefore, for humans, it involves a non-human donor which is definitely an animal species. Xenotransplantation aims at the use of genetically modified pigs as organ donors. This apparent compatibility is due to the pig having large litter size, rapid growth rate, short gestation period and possession of internal organs almost same size as that of man. Major challenges to successful transplantations using pig organs are immunological and include the hyperacute rejection due to anti gal response of recipients and acute humoral xenograft rejection (Dooldeniya and Warrens, 2003). However, the development of knock-out pigs (genetically modified to lack the alpha-galactosyl transferase enzyme, the human-pig chimera and genetic editing may provide a leeway out of the rejection problems.
Cloning can be simply defined as creating a genetically identical copy of a plant or animal.
Stem cells are ‘blank’ or undifferentiated cells that have the potential to undergo several degrees of differentiation into other cell types. Types of stem cells include Embryonic Stem cell, Non-embryonic/adult stem cell, Induced pleuripotent stem cells (iPSCs), Cord blood stem cells and amniotic fluid stem cells.
The major advantage of xenotransplantation would be easy availability of organs for transplant (current statistics).
Researchers interested in cloning had the primary aim of transferring human genes into animals in order to produce useful proteins for treating certain diseases. Foreign genes when transferred into mammalian cells can be cultured. The cultured cells will then be cloned to produce animals that when bred would express the desired genes in their milk. This would create a great breakthrough in medicine, whereby most diseases such as hemophilia and even cancers would have their cure in milk of animals bred conventionally. Cloning is also an integral part of xenotransplantation as the human – pig chimera successfully cloned in 2000. It can also be a useful practice in the study of diseases using animal models and in ensuring continuation of endangered species.
Following the cloning of 30 human embryos by South Korean scientists in 2004, human cloning was banned. However, therapeutic cloning (cell nucleus replacement) is still ongoing. Single cells are cloned to generate stem cells (iPPSC). The idea is that such cells can be used to generate required organs or tissues.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act – allowing early embryo use for stem cell research from IVF patients’ surplus
Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986- This safeguards animal welfare while allowing important scientific and medical research to go ahead.
Directive 2010/63/EUAnimals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986[Animal Welfare Act of 1966Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW)
Canadian Council on Animal CareNew Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act 1999
National Council for the Control of Animal Experimentation (CONCEA)
Ethical issues can be examined as it concerns both humans and animals. For humans, the greatest concern is the fear of infection, both known and unknown from animals to man