In sheep’s clothing

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RENO, Nev.

If there was a human side to them, it was tucked deep inside and resisted all invitation to bonding.

The black olives of their eyes betrayed visceral distrust as the sheep huddled in the opposite corner of the corral, unsettled and apprehensive.

“Care for a leaf of lettuce, sisters?”

“Ba-a-a-a-ah,” came a plaintive reply.

They looked like sheep, bleated like sheep and displayed behavior that was, in one word, sheepish. Yet there was no hiding from the fact that the fidgety animals in a corral on the eastern outskirts of town were, at least from a medical standpoint, partly human.

“They have human cells in their livers, pancreases, guts, hearts and muscles,” said Dr. Esmail D. Zanjani, the white-haired chief biotechnologist at the University of Nevada-Reno and creator of the flock.

“About 10 percent of each of these organs are made of human cells. Their brains, by contrast, have very few.”

It was the stuff of science fiction, a glance into a bottomless intellectual precipice that hid moral, ethical and political dilemmas beyond the immediate human grasp.

Baby boomers, who grew up mesmerized by a 19th-century novel by H.G. Wells about the brilliant and iconoclastic Dr. Moreau, who defiantly crossed animals with humans, now had a chance to greet real-life chimeras — mythical creatures from Greek folklore that displayed a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail.

Dr. Zanjani, who came to the U.S. from Iran in 1958, is no stranger to irony or controversy. About two decades ago, he used private money to execute the nation’s first fetus-to-fetus stem-cell transplant that has produced striking results.

In 1989, Guy and Terri Walden were expecting a baby who, while in the womb, was diagnosed with Hurler’s syndrome, a degenerative disease that disfigures a child, makes him mentally impaired and, in most cases, kills before age 10.

Most cases of that nature end up in abortion clinics. But for Mr. Walden, a Baptist minister from southern Texas, and his devoutly religious wife, that was out of the question.

Dr. Zanjani offered a solution that seemed to conform, at least partially, with their religious convictions: a stem-cell transplant from a fetus already aborted. After days of torment, the Waldens agreed.

During the procedure, healthy cells from the fetus were injected into the unborn child. The cells started growing, supplanting the damaged ones. When the child was born, the classic symptoms of Hurler’s syndrome were absent.

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