What if we could end the organ shortage tomorrow and everyone on the list could get a transplant within a few weeks? Would you be willing to endorse this new source of organs? If the source were a pig would you be willing to kill it to save your own life?
Xenotransplantation is the process of transplanting organs from animals into humans and historically that hasn’t worked too well. The human immune system immediately and violently attacks organs from animals and even our most powerful immunosuppressant drugs are ineffective but scientists are working on the problem because if we could use animal organs (ethical questions aside for now) we could end the organ shortage almost immediately.
The answer may lie in raising transgenic animals – animals that carry genes from other species or in the case of humans, animals that have been genetically modified so that their organs are transplantable into human beings.
According to www.actionbioscience.org Transgenic animals are not a pipe dream either, they are already being produced. The majority has been mice but scientists have also produced rabbits, pigs, sheep, and cattle. The primary question is not if we can raise pigs to produce organs for humans but when that is likely to happen and it’s possible it could happen relatively soon. In Korea scientists have already cloned a genetically altered pig with hopes of using its organs in humans but that has, to my knowledge, not yet been done successfully.
There are distinct medical applications to the process of transgenics and providing a ready supply of transplantable organs is one of them. Presently there is a single protein that can cause rejection but researchers think they can eliminate that problem in the not too distant future by replacing it with a human protein. It is also possible that animals could be raised to be disease resistant which would benefit both the animal and humans to which some animal diseases can cross.
Pigs are currently thought to be the best candidates for organ donation. The risk of cross-species disease transmission is decreased because of their increased phylogenetic distance from humans. They are readily available, their organs are anatomically comparable in size, and new infectious agents are less likely since they have been in close contact with humans through domestication for many generations.
Aside from growing organs for transplantation, milk producing animals are desirable, too, because they can be used to producenutritional supplements and pharmaceuticals. Products such as insulin, growth hormone, and blood anti-clotting factors may soon be or have already been obtained from the milk of transgenic cows, sheep, or goats. Research is also underway to manufacture milk through transgenesis for treatment of debilitating diseases such as phenylketonuria (PKU), hereditary emphysema, and cystic fibrosis.
So, yes, there are great possibilities with transgenic animals but there are also ethical concerns that must be addressed. For example:
- Should there be universal protocols for transgenesis?
- Should such protocols demand that only the most promising research be permitted?
- Is human welfare the only consideration? What about the welfare of other life forms?
- Should scientists focus on in vitro (cultured in a lab) transgenic methods rather than, or before, using live animals to alleviate animal suffering?
- Will transgenic animals radically change the direction of evolution, which may result in drastic consequences for nature and humans alike?
- Should patents be allowed on transgenic animals, which may hamper the free exchange of scientific research?
Animals like pigs offer hope for the thousands of people languishing on the national transplant list. Unfortunately these things take time and while scientists and then politicians and bureaucrats investigate the possibilities thousands will die waiting for organs. The altruistic system that we have in place in America just isn’t enough. We must do more to save the lives of those who need organs. Hope lies in xenotransplantation, regenerative medicine, therapeutic cloning and artificial organ development. We must keep that hope alive by support these efforts.
Bob Aronson of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s nearly 2,500 member Organ Transplant Initiative and the author of most of these donation/transplantation blogs.
You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.
Please view our video “Thank You From the Bottom of my Donor’s heart” on http://www.organti.org This video was produced to promote organ donation so it is free and no permission is needed for its use.
If you want to spread the word personally about organ donation, we have another PowerPoint slide show for your use free and without permission. Just go to http://www.organti.org and click on “Life Pass It On” on the left side of the screen and then just follow the directions. This is NOT a stand-alone show; it needs a presenter but is professionally produced and factually sound. If you decide to use the show I will send you a free copy of my e-book, “How to Get a Standing “O” that will help you with presentation skills. Just write to email@example.com and usually you will get a copy the same day.
Also…there is more information on this blog site about other donation/transplantation issues. Additionally we would love to have you join our Facebook group, Organ Transplant Initiative The more members we get the greater our clout with decision makers.