Unit 4: Hubris and Nemesis
Before You Read
Discuss these questions with a classmate or together as a class.
- Review the definition of a chimera from the previous story. What is a chimera?
- Do you think chimeras exist in real life?
- Use a dictionary to find the definition of chimera. How does it relate to DNA and genetics?
- Find a photo of a chimera cat on the Internet. Why do you think it is called a chimera? What may have caused this to happen?
This reading is more difficult than usual because of the medical vocabulary. So let’s practice some of these medical words before you read so you can be ready to tackle this difficult reading! Check which words you already know, make a guess, and/or use a dictionary to find the definition. These words are in order of how frequently they appear in the text.
- bone marrow
- heart valve
- immune system
- stem cells
Below are sentences from the article you are about to read. Guess the meaning of the words in bold.
- Every ten minutes, another person joins the list of hundreds of thousands waiting for organ transplants. The wait is sometimes years long, despite many of the candidates being in critical condition. But what if the need for transplant waiting lists could be eliminated?
- In the medical world, a chimera refers to any living thing that is composed of cells from two or more organisms.
- Heart valves from pigs are already used in some surgeries to replace faulty valves in human hearts.
- Transplanting human tissue is just the tip of the iceberg.
- The disease’s symptoms, which occur suddenly and usually at a young age, originate from a malfunction of cells in the pancreas called beta cells.
- Unlike the previously mentioned rat-mouse chimeras that had a random distribution of either rat or mouse cells, these chimeras were all rat except for one organ- the pancreas.
- As a result, the insulin works to regulate the mouse’s blood sugar, essentially curing it of diabetes.
- Chimeras have been successfully made between multiple species, but not all pairs are able to form chimeras. For example, while cells from a mouse and rat could form a chimera, cells from a pig and rat could not.
- It may then be possible, for example, to grow a “human” heart inside a pig, and then transplant it when a patient with a heart defect or disease requires a new, fully functioning heart.
- Pancreas transplants are already in use to combat type 1 diabetes.
The End of the Waitlist: How Chimeras Could Solve the Organ Transplant Problem
by Garrett Dunlap, figures by Shannon McArdel (CC-BY-NC-SA)
Every ten minutes, another person joins the list of hundreds of thousands waiting for organ transplants. The wait is sometimes years long, despite many of the candidates being in critical condition. But what if the need for transplant waiting lists could be eliminated? Recent advances in a decades-old technology known as chimerism give reason to believe that this may be possible, curing diseases and improving well-being along the way.
Chimeras: mythological beasts or useful research tools?
In Ancient Greece, a Chimera was a mythological beast consisting of parts from different animals, such as the head of a lion and the body of a goat. But don’t expect to see these fire-breathing monsters coming out of laboratories! In the medical world, a chimera refers to any living thing that is composed of cells from two or more organisms. Because of this, you may in fact already be or know a chimera! For instance, anyone who has received a bone marrow transplant from another person may be a chimera. After a patient receives one, their blood, which is produced by the transplanted marrow, carries DNA that is different from the DNA contained in the rest of their body’s cells.
But transplanting human tissue is just the tip of the iceberg. Other medical procedures produce chimeras that combine species! For instance, heart valves from pigs are already used in some surgeries to replace faulty valves in human hearts. The pig is a natural choice for human transplantation, as many organs are quite similar in size and structure between human and pig. Unfortunately, the body may reject the pig valve, as the immune system sometimes sees the pig cells as “foreign” and begins to attack. And so, researchers were faced with the task of developing replacement organs that the human body won’t reject.
Enter the current state of chimera research.
Growing new organs
Scientists have been studying chimeras formed from different animals for over 30 years. The first recorded success was in 1984, when scientists engineered a “geep,” an organism with cells from both a goat and a sheep embryo. Since then, scientists have attempted to generate chimeras again and again for a growing list of scientific and medical applications. Recent advancements in gene-editing technology such as CRISPR have made it easier than ever to study chimeras and their possible benefits for human health.
While chimeras seem incredibly exciting, there are some limitations. For instance, the mythological Chimera of ancient Greece is unlikely to ever be physically possible: there is a limit to how different two animals can be and still be chimerically compatible with one another. While we have successfully made a rat-mouse chimera, such is not the case for a rodent-pig chimera. However, as you may have already guessed, human stem cells can be combined with pig embryos to form human-pig chimeras (Figure 1).
The scientists did not attempt to create these chimeras in order to make a species of half men, half pigs, though. The idea is to create an organism in which only one, or possibly a few, of the organs are of cells from the second species. It may then be possible, for example, to grow a “human” heart inside a pig, and then transplant it when a patient with a heart defect or disease requires a new, fully functioning heart.
The future of chimera-based treatment
One particularly exciting potential application of chimeras is the treatment of type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a disease caused by a lack or low levels of insulin, which works to keep blood sugar at healthy levels. The disease’s symptoms, which occur suddenly and usually at a young age, originate from a malfunction of cells in the pancreas called beta cells. Because these beta cells occupy particular areas of the pancreas, it is possible that healthy ones can be transplanted to replace the faulty ones. In effect, a patient may no longer need to take pills or injections to maintain proper levels of insulin. Pancreas transplants are already in use to combat type 1 diabetes. With waiting list times averaging over two years, though, the supply simply cannot keep up with the demand.
Generation of chimeras to produce fully functional pancreases is a potential method to solve this problem. In fact, this idea is currently being tested at the University of Tokyo, where a group of researchers first formed rat-mouse chimeras. Unlike the previously mentioned rat-mouse chimeras that had a random distribution of either rat or mouse cells, these chimeras were all rat except for one organ- the pancreas. The pancreas contained nearly all cells from a mouse, yet still functioned completely fine in the rat. The grand experiment came when the researchers attempted to transplant beta cells from the chimera’s pancreas into diabetic mice (Figure 2). Amazingly, these cells become a functioning part of the diabetic mouse’s pancreas, producing insulin as necessary. As a result, the researchers observed that these mice were able to maintain healthy blood sugar levels for over a year!
While chimeras composed of cells from rats and mice may be far from representative of humans, this shows that transplantation of chimera-grown tissues may be the future of treatment for many diseases. This is not without much controversy, though. Only in late 2016 did the National Institutes of Health begin to consider allowing federal money to go toward research on human chimeras. Currently, all studies of human chimeras must be funded either in other countries or using money from private organizations. Even then, restrictions are in place regarding how long a chimera involving human cells can be left to grow. While it will no doubt remain a controversial topic, further research on chimeras may have the ability to one day eliminate the need for transplant waitlists and permanently treat diseases like type 1 diabetes.
CEFR Level: CEFR Level C1
Answer the following questions according to the reading.
- According to the reading, how are successful chimeras made?
- How can chimeras be useful for organ transplants?
- When was the first successful chimera created, and what two animals were used?
- What are examples of issues and diseases mentioned in the article that could be cured or helped by using chimeras?
Answer the following questions. Compare your answers with a partner.
- How are these chimeras similar to the chimera from Greek mythology? How are they different?
- The end of the article mentions that using chimeras for organ transplants is controversial. What could be some reasons why it is controversial?