When cells-but not DNA-from two or more genetically distinct individuals combine to form a new individual, the result is called a chimera. Though chimeras occasionally occur in nature, scientists have produced chimeras in a laboratory setting since the 1960s. During the creation of a chimera, the DNA molecules do not exchange genetic material (recombine), unlike in sexual reproduction or in hybrid organisms, which result from genetic material exchanged between two different species. A chimera instead contains discrete cell populations with two unique sets of parental genes. Chimeras can occur when two independent organisms fuse at a cellular level to form one organism, or when a population of cells is transferred from one organism to another. Chimeras created in laboratories have helped scientists to identify developmental mechanisms and processes across species. Some experiments involving chimeras aim to provide further knowledge of immune reactions against disease or to create animal models to understand human disease.
To educate its citizens about research into chimeras made from human and non-human animal cells, the United Kingdom's Human Fertilisation Embryology Authority published the consultation piece Hybrids and Chimeras: A Consultation on the Ethical and Social Implications of Creating Human/Animal Embryos in Research, in 2007. The document provided scientific and legal background, described ethical and social issues associated with research using part-human part-animal embryos, supplied a questionnaire for citizens to return to the HFEA with their opinions, and offered a list of resources for further reading to stimulate public debate. The strategy of surveying the public provided a template for developing further policy in the United Kingdom and other countries, as well as for educating citizens on embryological research.
In 2007, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in London, UK, published Hybrids and Chimeras: A Report on the Findings of the Consultation, which summarized a public debate about research on, and suggested policy for, human animal chimeras. The HFEA formulated the report after conducting a series of surveys and debates from earlier in 2007. The HFEA issued a statement in September 2007, followed by an official report published on 1 October 2007. Their report on human-animal chimeras set a worldwide precedent for discussions of the ethical use of those embryos in labs. The HFEA's report led the UK government to pass legislature about the use of human-animal cytoplasmic hybrid embryos for research in the UK.
In 2002, after applying for government assistance in the state of Washington, Lydia Fairchild was told that her two children were not a genetic match with her and that therefore, biologically, she could not be their mother. Researchers later determined that the genetic mismatch was due to chimerism, a condition in which two genetically distinct cell lines are present in one body. The state accused Fairchild of fraud and filed a lawsuit against her. Following evidence from another case of chimerism documented in The New England Journal of Medicine in a woman named Karen Keegan, Fairchild was able to secure legal counsel and establish evidence of her biological maternity. A cervical swab eventually revealed Fairchild’s second distinct cell line, showing that she had not genetically matched her children because she was a chimera. Fairchild’s case was one of the first public accounts of chimerism and has been used as an example in subsequent discussions about the validity and reliability of DNA evidence in legal proceedings within the United States.
In 2007, Françoise Baylis and Jason Scott Robert published “Part-Human Chimeras: Worrying the Facts, Probing the Ethics” in The American Journal of Bioethics. Within their article, hereafter “Part-Human Chimeras,” the authors offer corrections on “Thinking About the Human Neuron Mouse,” a report published in The American Journal of Bioethics in 2007 by Henry Greely, Mildred K. Cho, Linda F. Hogle, and Debra M. Satz, which discussed the debate on the ethics of creating part-human chimeras. Chimeras are organisms that contain two or more genetically distinct cell lines. Both publications discuss chimeras with DNA from different species, specifically in response to studies in which scientists injected human brain cells into mice. “Part-Human Chimeras,” contributes to a chain of ethical and scientific discussion that occurred in the mid-2000s on whether people should be able to conduct research on chimeras, especially in embryos.
Kurt Benirschke studied cells, placentas, and endangered species in Germany and the US during the twentieth century. Benirschke was professor at the University of California in San Diego, California, and a director of the research department at the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, California. He also helped form the research department of the San Diego Zoo and its sister organization, the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species. Benirschke contributed to the field of embryology through his work on human and animal reproduction, including work on human placentas and birth defects, through work on the structure of chromosomes, and through work on the reproduction and conservation of endangered species.