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21 Mar 2005
OF MICE AND MAN, AND A BIG DILEMMA
It will look like any ordinary mouse, but for America's scientists a tiny animal threatens to ignite an ethical dilemma.
In one of the most controversial scientific projects conceived, university researchers in California's Silicon Valley are preparing to create a mouse whose brain will consist of human cells.
Researchers at Stanford University have already succeeded in breeding mice with brains that are 1 per cent human cells.
Next they plan to use stem cells from aborted foetuses to create an animal with brain cells 100 per cent human.
Professor Irving Weissman, who heads the university's Institute of Cancer/Stem Cell Biology, believes the mice could produce a breakthrough in understanding how stem cells might lead
to a cure for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Last week the university's ethics committee approved the research, under certain conditions.
Committee head Professor Henry Greely said: "If the mouse shows human-like behaviours, like improved memory or problem-solving, it's time to stop."
The project might seem "a little creepy", but he insisted it wasn't "going to get up and say, 'Hi, I'm Mickey'. Our brains are more complicated."
Biologists know such creatures as "chimeras", after the mythical Greek monster that was part-lion, part-goat and part-serpent.
Professor Weissman said there was no way of knowing whether the "human-mice" would develop any human characteristics until after birth.
Supporters of stem cell research at Stanford University include actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and provided the voice for Stuart Little, Hollywood's version
of the "human mouse", who talks, has human parents and lives in New York.