George Church hit a nerve when he recently discussed re-creating Neanderthals with an "adventurous human female" surrogate, in Der Spiegel. The media attention rapidly became fierce, with dozens of outlets carrying the remarks. Yesterday, Church told the Boston Herald that the whole kerfuffle was based on "poor translation." As for cloning a Neanderthal, he said, "I'm certainly not advocating it … I'm saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today."
It's good to hear Church disavowing the idea of using genetic engineering, synthetic biology and human surrogates to create a Neanderthal clone baby, at least for the time being. But it's disingenuous of him to shift all the blame onto the translation process. The phrase that clearly got the most attention was "adventurous female human" — and that comes straight from the prologue of his own recent book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves (co-authored with Ed Regis, published in October 2012):
If society becomes comfortable with cloning and sees value in true human diversity, then the whole Neanderthal creature itself could be cloned by a surrogate mother chimp — or by an extremely adventurous female human.
Is Church personally looking for a human surrogate to gestate a Neanderthal clone, right this minute? No. Is he willing to openly advocate for the scenario that he describes in some technical detail? Not forthrightly, and both in his book and in the interview that sparked the recent furor, he includes "ifs" and caveats. Does he think that the process will be technically feasible in the foreseeable future? Emphatically yes. He's been talking about this and similar projects for several years. For example:
New York Times, 2008, discussing the recreation of Neanderthals:
Dr. Church said there might be an alternative approach that would "alarm a minimal number of people." The workaround would be to modify not a human genome but that of the chimpanzee, which is some 98 percent similar to that of people. The chimp's genome would be progressively modified until close enough to that of Neanderthals, and the embryo brought to term in a chimpanzee.
"The big issue would be whether enough people felt that a chimp-Neanderthal hybrid would be acceptable, and that would be broadly discussed before anyone started to work on it," Dr. Church said.
Church proposes to use the MAGE technique to alter a stem cell's DNA to match the Neanderthal genome. That stem cell would be left to reproduce, creating a colony of cells that could be programmed to become any type of cell that existed in the Neanderthal's body. Colonies of heart, brain, and liver cells, or possibly entire organs, could be grown for research purposes.
This technique could also be used to create a person. A stem cell with Neanderthal DNA could be implanted in a human blastocyst — a cluster of cells in the process of developing into an embryo. Then, all of the non-Neanderthal cells could be kept from growing. The individual who developed from that blastocyst would be entirely the result of Neanderthal genes. In effect, it would be a cloned Neanderthal.
… "We could learn a lot more from a living adult Neanderthal than we could from cell cultures," says Church. Special arrangements would have to be made to create a place for a cloned Neanderthal to live and pursue the life he or she would want, he says. The clone would also have to have a peer group, which would mean creating several clones, if not a whole colony. According to Church, studying those Neanderthals, with their consent, would have the potential to cure diseases and save lives.
Colbert Report, 2012:
Are you playing god, sir? Because you have the beard for it.
We're engineers, we're fixing only things that are broken. …
Can you bring things back from the dead? ...
We can make copies of things that have elements of animals or bacteria and so forth that were extinct.
You guys are working on the wooly mammoth, right?
It's a possibility.
Bloomberg Businessweek, 2012:
Church has tests running in the lab around Neanderthal cells as he tries to determine what this species might have looked and acted like. ... "We have lots of Neanderthal parts around the lab. We are creating Neanderthal cells. Let's say someone has a healthy, normal Neanderthal baby. Well, then, everyone will want to have a Neanderthal kid. Were they superstrong or supersmart? Who knows? But there's one way to find out."
... How far off is this brave new world? Well, according to Church, probably not far at all. "The cheap human genome was supposed to arrive 50 years from now," he says. "It arrived this year. What if a cheap Neanderthal or mammoth arrives 50 years ahead of time?"
The first time Church talked about recreating Neanderthals, it was unthinkable, and didn't attract more than fleeting attention. But — in part perhaps because of that article in the newspaper of record — the next one was longer, more substantial, and established Neanderthal cloning as a possibility, at least in certain quarters. He did, after all, choose to feature the topic in the introduction to his book.
Church has also made other controversial predictions and assertions, including statements that advocate — or at least predict — the use of "designer baby" technology:
Science, 2011 [feature article on Church, "The Life Hacker," behind paywall]:
"I wouldn't mind being virus-free," he says with equal parts mirth and earnestness. It may be too late to reengineer all of his own cells to prevent viral infections, but Church doesn't rule out the possibility of rewiring the genome of a human embryo to be virus-proof.
MIT Technology Review, 2011, on the future of stem cells:
They have used IPS cells to grow a mouse, and they made IPS cells from that mouse. They're totipotent [able to make an entire organism], not merely pluripotent. We haven't done this for humans for obvious ethical reasons, but we will do it. As far as I know the mice have done fine. …
Who is going to do this?
The only way people are going to get this is through some brave soul. It will start with a sick person, and they will end up getting well, possibly more well than before they got sick. So you didn't just correct the sickness, you actually did more. And they'll give testimonials, and someone from the New York Times will interview them, and tell this appealing anecdote.
Bloomberg Businessweek, 2012:
Church figures it's only a matter of time and proven safety before people start picking out traits for their offspring and cloning entire children. "Almost all technology in this area is banned until it works," Church says. "In vitro fertilization was banned, and now it is immoral to deny an infertile couple their birthright to have a child produced by their bodies. At some point, someone will come up with an airtight argument as to why they should have a cloned child. At that point, cloning will be acceptable. At that point, people will already be choosing traits for their children. What politician will tell a parent that they can't spend their hard-earned money on getting an extra 50 SAT points for their child as long as it's safe?"
Church is very familiar with the media, and outspoken on other controversial topics such as gene-testing Presidential candidates and forfeiting genetic privacy. He told the Boston Herald that he has done perhaps 500 interviews about his research during more than two decades and the story about human surrogates for Neanderthal babies is the first one to spiral out of control quite like this.
Would it be too cynical to suggest that he was happy to push radical ideas into the mainstream? That by couching his advocacy in the form of "thought experiments" he is merely giving himself a form of plausible deniability? In fact, that by first provoking a firestorm and then distancing himself from it, Church is trying to have his cake and eat it too?
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Comments are now closed for this item.
Comment by Desmond Smith, Jan 25th, 2013 3:10pm
It is a bit of pity that Dr Church blamed the uproar on a mistranslation, because the article clearly did not mistranslate. It would have been better if Dr Church had stuck to his guns.
Nevertheless, I think Dr Church is absolutely correct to raise these issues for discussion. In fact, I am a bit concerned that the uproar is inadvertently intimidating people from discussion or even thoughts about Dr Church's bold and interesting ideas. Surely thinking and discussing these issues can lead to no harm?
If feasible would we resurrect an extinct bald eagle? The now extinct dodo?
If we could ask a Neanderthal whether they would like to be resurrected, they would probably answer "yes". Survival is programmed in our genes.
All DNA wants to live. (All information wants to be free.)