Neanderthal Research Subjects?

If we could clone Neanderthals, should we? Why or why not? What would the ethical pitfalls be? Would the consequences of doing of it be the problem, or would the research leading to the cloning be problematic in its own right?

Here’s the article inspiring the questions, by Zach Zorich, in Archaeology, Should We Clone Neanderthals?

If Neanderthals ever walk the earth again, the primordial ooze from which they will rise is an emulsion of oil, water, and DNA capture beads engineered in the laboratory of 454 Life Sciences in Branford, Connecticut. Over the past 4 years those beads have been gathering tiny fragments of DNA from samples of dissolved organic materials, including pieces of Neanderthal bone….

There are still technical obstacles, but soon it could be possible to use that long-extinct genome to safely create a healthy, living Neanderthal clone. Should it be done?….

Two main thoughts occurred to me, reading this article.

1) Do (or would) Neanderthals fall, as a matter of jurisdiction, into the domain of regulations established to protect human research subjects? Whether Neanderthals ought to count as human is controversial among scientists (according to the Wikipedia page on Neanderthals, “Neanderthals are either classified as a subspecies of humans (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) or as a separate species (Homo neanderthalensis).” Given such scientific controversy, it’s at least not obvious that laws & guidelines set up to protect specifically human research subjects would apply. Research on non-human research subjects is covered by the laws & guidelines for animal research.

Now, the article has some interesting stuff about human rights law, which suggests that interpretation of the term “human” in that regard might be broad enough to include Neanderthals. But then, it might not — depending on the jurisdiction and the decision-maker. Also, it’s not clear that the standard applied under human rights law would automatically be the standard taken up by those who administer the rules of research ethics. And even if it were, that leaves open interesting questions about just how far from homo sapiens you have to stray before you leave the domain of “human” research, for either ethical or regulatory purposes.

2) The article points to a number of technical obstacles to cloning a Neanderthal. It points out, for example, that getting Neanderthal DNA isn’t enough — the DNA needs to be formed into chromosomes and situated inside an egg, for starters. But the article leaves out one other, ethically crucial part of the equation: Mom. To create a living, breathing Neanderthal, you’d need not just an egg loaded with Neanderthal DNA, you need to implant that egg in the uterus of a female of a closely-related species. In other words, a woman. So, even setting aside the question of whether a genetically-Neanderthal fetus would be a “human fetus”, such an experiment would still clearly fall into the category of research on human subjects. Would an ethics board approve it?

~ by Nancy Walton on February 22, 2010.

One Response to “Neanderthal Research Subjects?”

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