What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

The video for this story is not available, but you can still read the transcript below.
No image

Extended Interview: Stuart Newman

Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, tried to patent a human-ape chimera as a way to draw attention to the practice of blending genes. The patent was denied, which was what they wanted, but it does not rule out other kinds of chimeras.

Read the Full Transcript

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    You filed an action with the U.S. Patent Office. Tell me about that. What was it all about and what were you hoping to accomplish?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Well, I'm a developmental biologist and this is the field that's generated cloning and stem cells and genetic engineering, and I was concerned because as science moves on, technology has become possible, and people are not always very happy with the outcome of the technological applications and sometimes this can turn people against science to make people suspicious of science.

    So I was approached by the public interest advocate, Jeremy Rifkin, back in the mid-'90s with the kind of challenge of proposing something that was scientifically feasible and useful and perhaps even profitable, but something that would be shocking to most people. And the idea was that that we could apply for a patent on this invention and use that to alert the public to what is down the road with regard to these technologies.

    But we never intended to construct these. The particular idea was something called a chimera, which is something constructed by mixing cells from embryos of different species. And this had been done before with goats and sheep, and organisms called geeps resulted from this, where you look at this animal and you don't know what it is. It's not a sheep, it's not a goat — somewhere in between.

    And the idea for this invention was to use human embryo cells or human embryonic stem cells, mix them with the cells of non-human animals and grow embryos of this composite nature, to various stages of development and even potentially to full-term. And if you can get a patent on something without actually doing it, and we had no intention of doing this, and so we filed this patent application and at the time that it was filed a number of scientists and commentators of science stepped forward and that this is really outrageous and no scientist in their right mind would ever do something like this.

    But now it's being proposed. Now that human stem cells are being worked with in the laboratory, it's become feasible to do this. And it's on the scientific agenda now.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    What was your goal in filing for the patent?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Well the goal was to alert the public as to what the technology was capable of, to point out that because of the biological continuity between all different living species, there's really no obstacle to making something that is midway or partway between different species.

    And if so, it really challenges our idea of what we are as humans. And of course what we are as humans are, are not just what we're made of. Humans have an evolutionary history separate from other species as all species do. And humans have culture that's not in common with other animals, but on the material level, the, excuse me, biological level, we are all more or less the same.

    So it is possible to do these experiments and it just represents a challenge. If people are offended by this kind of experiment, then they have to pass laws against it or pass laws restricting it in some way. But something has to be done because if simply scientific medical and commercial imperatives are at work, we'll wind up with things that none of us are comfortable with.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    For example.

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Well, a half human, half chimpanzee.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    What would you offer as an example as to something that would shock people. What might happen with this kind of animal.

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Well, if you mix together cells of the early embryos of humans and non-humans, then you can wind up with an organism that is partway between the two types of animals, these two types of organisms. So if you start with a pig embryo and a human embryo, you have something that's partway between a human and a pig. If you start with a chimpanzee and a human, something partway between a human and a chimpanzee.

    So, what does this mean about us? I mean do these organisms — are they afforded a place in our society? Are they given civil rights, human rights? It becomes very ambiguous and perhaps it's something, at least some analysts say this is something to stay away from because of those reasons.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    You didn't get the patent.

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    No, no, we were turned down on a number of different grounds over a succession of times. And some of the grounds were technical that this was because there were these geeps done before, this is not original enough to be patentable.

    Well, we dealt with that kind of criticism. Then there was a question of since we hadn't done it and weren't legally required to do it, but you are required to specify it very strictly so that somebody could do it. And it was claimed that the specification was too vague and so there were a number of reasons. But the main reason was that the Patent Office said that at least some versions of this invention were too human to patent and the Constitution says that you can't own human beings and so, for that reason we couldn't patent these part-human beings.

    Then the question becomes, if we make it so it's only 10 percent human, is that maybe not human enough to be excluded from being patented? And so on.

    So you can see in this particular piece of technology, was very suitable for raising these questions because in theory at least, you could titrate or gauge what the level of humanity would be in this organism. And you might wind up with something that is only 5 percent human. Can that be patented, or if it's 90 percent human, probably not.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Some serious ethical issues.

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Yes, really.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Would any of these animals have the possibility of becoming self-aware or being enough human that they would be in effect sentient beings?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Well, chimpanzees are sentient beings. I mean not exactly the way we are, but there's a consciousness and there's a thought process and even non-primate mammals and even people say non-invertebrates like octopuses, have a mental life.

    So certainly as you combine it, with human cells, you're getting something that's closer to the human sort of consciousness and self-awareness. Just this week in Science magazine, there is an article by 22 ethicists and scientists talking about the questions of raised by implanting human brain cells into the embryos of non-human primates, monkeys or apes. And how human does that have to be before it's unethical to do it.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    There is a scientist doing that in St. Kitts.

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Right.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    What would you say to him?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Don't do it. I think that these things theoretically raise a lot of very uncomfortable questions. And not everything that is capable of being done should be done. I mean there are reasons to stay away from certain things and kinds of experiments on people for example.

    We just don't do it even though we could learn something from it. I mean the Nazis doused people in ice cold water to see what happened. And they took down the statistics and the numbers that they'd gotten. They published papers on it and so on, but it's considered not the kind of science that's acceptable.

    In fact, physiologists who might otherwise be able to use those data don't because of the way they're collected. So there are certain kinds of experimental protocols, that could be justified on a purely scientific basis or even a purely medical basis but are just unethical to do.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Given what you just said, what do you think of the National Academy of Sciences guidelines that have been recently promulgated?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    About chimeras. I think that's a step in the right direction in that they call for certain things not to be done which is a big step in today's commercialized scientific world. There's a desire to do anything that might have some kind of usefulness or some kind of profitability. And if some agencies draw lines, I think it's a good step. I would draw the lines possibly in different places. I actually think that embarking on modifying early human embryos is taking us along a path where we're going to have part-humans and quasi-humans and not quite humans.

    I think it would be a path that would make most people uncomfortable. And I think that I should say that this has nothing to do with a woman's reproductive autonomy. I mean this is often raised against critics of this kind of research that somehow it's concentrating too much — focusing too much on the embryo. But to say that someone has the right not to proceed with a pregnancy is not identical to someone having the right to do whatever they want with a human embryo. So I think that those two questions can be divided.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Along that same line of thought, I have to ask you, does your opposition to this kind of research have anything to do with the fact that you work for a Catholic institution?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Not at all. I'm not Catholic myself, I'm not religious myself. And I'm absolutely pro-choice. So I have no problems with that at all, but I think manufacturing part humans by using genetic technologies is is not a natural offshoot of saying that a woman has a right to remain pregnant or not as she chooses.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Dr. Weissman, who is doing chimeric mouse research at Stanford University, has a different take on it. Dr. Weissman might ask what diseases don't you want to cure by cutting off these avenues of research?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    I think that science can find many routes to curing diseases. There's no unique route to curing any one disease and I personally happen to not be opposed to using human stem cells for research.

    I think that creating designer stem cells, that is creating cloned embryos so that the stem cells can be matched to the patient, I think is taking us along that pathway of making modified human beings. I think that there's kind of no obvious place to stop.

    I mean, it may be that the stem cells that you get from 5-day embryos are OK, and the stem cells that you get from 24-day embryos might be better and so on.

    So I think once you're along that path, there is always somebody that's going to say, oh, let's take it a little bit further. So I think it's a dangerous path, but I think that taking non-modified embryos — embryos that are excess embryos from invitro fertilization procedures and producing stem cells from them without genetically modifying the embryos or cloning them or so on — I think that if the line were drawn there, where that would be acceptable, but no modified human embryos would be made, I think that we could make a lot of medical progress and we could foreclose this process by which we may come up with Frankenstein monsters to basically serve the medical purposes of other people.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Who should decide where the line is drawn?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Well, I think that it has to be a discussion between the legislators and scientists and people from all areas of society. I think I would hate to see it just being handed down by Congress. I think that scientists would react very badly against that. And I wouldn't like that it would be kind of a dictate. You know just don't do this.

    I think that if scientists were persuaded that certain pathways should just not be cultivated. I think that we can wind up with a consensus where we wouldn't be doing socially divisive research. I think it's possible. I think it's going to take a lot of discussion, but I think that one way of making the discussion kind of balanced and and wise is to just not do things prematurely. I mean, why make chimpanzees with human brain cells? I mean, we really don't have a good reason to do it now. We might find out something, but we might just create things that that give us problems.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    But Dr. Redmond would argue that what he's doing may lead to a cure of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    But it may. I mean there are lots of promises. They were saying that about genetic engineering 15 years ago and it really kind of fizzled. They were saying it about fetal tissue transplants to the human brain, that fizzled also.

    There are always promises and I can't say it's not going to happen. I think that this idea, though, that everything should be tried because something good may come out of it, I think that it sacrifices other values. I mean that we have a certain value in the uniqueness of the human species. If we're willing to kind of undermine that because some people might be helped from it, I think that we're losing something.

    It's like, you know, you might say that there's a lot of oil in Alaska and we're going to all freeze unless we get that oil, but there are other values that are brought to bear. There's the environment. Well similarly here, there are certain values to the species identity of humans and, and other organisms and if we say it doesn't mean anything, let's just do what can be done, I think we're going to lose something.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    There are some people who will argue that the so-called interspecies boundary really is very pliable. In fact, you've said yourself it is easy to make these chimeric animals and that concern about crossing that boundary are overblown.

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Well I think that a boundary like that is what you choose to make of it. The boundary is not a rigid boundary biologically in the sense that we and the other species have had separate evolutionary histories which makes it probably impossible for us to mate with chimpanzees or certainly with other non-primates. That's because of an evolutionary divergence.

    Now that doesn't mean that the molecules that make up our bodies and the cells that make up our bodies can't communicate with the molecules and cells of the bodies of other species. So you can do a technological manipulation and cross the boundary, but does this crossing happen in the normal course of things? It doesn't. So that means that there is something to these species boundaries. Even if it's just evolutionary history and with humans it's culture that separates us from other organisms. There's a continuity at the very basic biological and material level but at the historical level there's a discontinuity. And you could say that we will take advantage of this biological continuity and not bother about the meaning for culture of the society of these boundaries, when it comes to to what they mean for us, for us socially. You could say it doesn't matter. We're just doing medicine here. But I don't believe that. I think that everything is embedded in the wider culture. And we just can't dismiss the existence of these boundaries.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    There's a long history of science being in conflict with culture going way back to people like Galileo. Did it give you pause as a scientist yourself, one who does try to push the boundaries of knowledge, to want to foreclose lines of inquiry into other ways of knowing things?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Only a little. I originally trained as a physical scientist and I received my graduate degree at the James Frank Institute at the University of Chicago, and James Frank was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was a leader in trying to foreclose the development of atomic weapons. And this was part of the culture of my scientific education that a responsible way of doing science is to see how powerful science is and to try to ensure that you let the public know that it's a two-edged sword. That that if it's used incorrectly it could cause a disaster. And there's nothing that is just all good. And science, as powerful as it is, can be abused.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Let me interrupt you for a second. The counterargument might be that if you don't do the science, if you don't find out, you'll never know if it's going to be valuable or not.

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Well, the people who were developing nuclear weapons knew that the nuclear weapons were going to be for warfare. They hoped maybe they wouldn't be used, but they very quickly were used and there were all sorts of warnings that someday, this seems like a very high-tech thing back in 1943, someday this was going to get into the hands of people that will benefit from the science that's being done here and use it for purposes that we really don't like at all. And we see what's happened with that.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Is it fair to equate nuclear weapons with a mouse that has human brain cells?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Well I think that it is fair in the sense that we have a certain kind of cultural civilizational understanding of what it is to be human. It's inevitable that if we cross these boundaries and we say that we will grow modified human embryos to various stages of development for the purpose of harvesting spare parts for other people, that we'll come to a point where we may want to generate full-term, fully born humans that are missing brains and are simply sources of organs. This is possible. It can be done with, with frogs and, and so on.

    Basically we're calling into question what it is to be human, and do we really want to do that for certain kind of relatively narrow aims that may or may not work? I mean is this something that that we want to do to our culture? It's the culture, it's not just medicine, it's not just science, it's other values as well.

    And it's not only religious people that are concerned about these cultural issues, these boundary issues and so on. It's do we want a world where everything is artificial? I mean, well, maybe for some people that would be good. Maybe it would be profitable, maybe it would be reliable, but we lose something from it.

    But it would be hard to say just from the point of view of science and technology, that artificial food and, you know, everything being processed would be undesirable. I mean it's other values that come into play that tell us that there are limits to how we should use science.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    You mentioned the word profitability several times. Do you think scientists like Weissman and Redmond are in this not as they say to cure disease but for the money?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    No, I think that they're in it to cure disease, but I think that there are also people that realize that money could be made from this and are willing to fund their research in the hopes that not only will diseases be cured, but patents will be awarded and products will be will be sold and so on.

    So I'm not trying to impugn the motives of the scientists that are involved in this, but people have mixed motives and we have a very market-based society, a very commercialized society. Almost nothing gets done without corporate sponsorship at some level. So I think that it becomes very easy to kind of buy into the idea that if something that can be produced that's profitable, it's also going to be good.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    If you would have been granted the patent, what would you have done? What would have been the result of that?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Well, I certainly wouldn't have licensed the patent because I didn't want to see these part-human chimeras produced, and anybody who is awarded such a patent has a right to restrict its use or at least actually has the right to sue somebody who uses it without your license.

    So I would have done what I could to make the technology difficult to commercialize. I couldn't probably have restricted certain scientific efforts using the technology and I'm not sure that if I would have wanted to, but I would be happy if certain of these things were not done.

    So this was really kind of an intervention to bring kind of public scrutiny into this technology. And in fact, the public did become aware of it through their newspaper and magazine articles, the legal community became aware that because they must have been about 50 law review articles that either in whole or in part dealt with the issues raised by this chimera patent.

    So we really accomplished what we wanted to and I think that as we are now moving to a time when people are proposing to do this, for real, I think that there is a kind of background in the legal literature and public understanding that was kind of fostered by this patent.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Have you gotten much feedback from your scientific colleagues about the position you've taken?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Yes, it's been mostly good. I think that there are some people that thought that this was bringing an unwarranted scrutiny to to this work, but most of the people that have brought it up to me have been very complimentary about it and I think that most scientists really understand that they don't have the absolute right to do everything that science has made possible. I mean somebody's a bus driver. They don't have an absolute right to take their passengers across people's lawns to get to the destination faster. And every beneficial occupation has a way that it can be abused and science no less than anything else. Probably more so.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    As I understand it, the rules we have, those guidelines, essentially delegate where to draw that line that we've talked about at some length to these ethics committees at individual institutions. Do you think that's a good way to do this? To do it piecemeal? Or should it be done in a legislative manner? You mentioned you didn't want the Congress to decide, but is this a good approach?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Well I think that the guidelines that exist were from the National Academy of Sciences. I think they're just recommendations and they may have some force in influencing granting agencies to say you can't get a grant unless you follow these rules. But that doesn't force anybody who's outside of this granting system possibly working with private money from following those rules.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    How about overseas?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    That's right. I think the only way it can really be controlled is if scientists decide that and scientific journals decide that certain areas are just kind of outside the pale as far as publishability. I mean if if somebody develops a way to create a full-term cloned human being, I think that probably most journals would stay away from, or many journals would stay from it, at least the better journals, and if the better journals didn't publish enabling technologies that would allow people who may not have developed the techniques themselves but are benefiting from the published literature, if the journals basically blocked certain avenues by agreement, not by law but by agreement, I think that science would follow other pathways, less divisive and probably equally productive pathways.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    The phrase has come up a number of other interviews that we have done, about the yuck factor. What's your take on the yuck factor?

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    Well, I think it's a sliding scale culturally. I think that certain things that kind of disgust people, they've gotten used to and I think that probably 30 years ago, if you talked about cloning humans it would have caused people's gorge to rise and, and now there are people even senators and so on that have advocated it and it turns out it's an interesting phenomenon that the bioethics community, the philosophers and ethicists that are involved in scrutinizing this, seem to be out ahead of the scientists.

    There are things that if you ask a scientist, would you ever do that, would you ever want to create a full-term cloned human being or would you experiment on human embryos with genetic modifications to see if they could turn out better, I think they would say no. You know, this is something I would want to stay away from, but very prominent bioethicists and philosophers of biology have said what's wrong with that, and having encouraged scientists who might be kind of out on the edge wanting to do it.

    So I think that we have almost an intellectual branch of academia now that is enabling and encouraging, kind of getting beyond the yuck factor. So I think that should kind of give us pause because if things that we really don't like and we can think of lots of examples of cannibalism and so on, if we can be made to get used to them, we're pretty flexible culturally and do we want to be led along to overcome our natural kind of uncomfortableness, led along by promises and by commercial hype and so on? And this is happening. People are being enticed to go further and further along these lines by things that are not necessarily panning out.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Sounds like the scientific community is a long way from a consensus on this issue.

  • STUART NEWMAN:

    I think so. I think so. But I think that probably most scientists, at least scientists of my acquaintance would be more circumspect because of their understanding of what could go wrong than that bioethicists or commercializers, and other advocates of just busting through all the barriers.

The Latest