A Breakthrough in Organ Transplantation

Science is intrinsically linked with innovation, and we see its manifestations in all parts of life. Medical science is one such instance where we have seen centuries of productive innovations that have contributed to the longevity of humans. The fact that science is now modifying animals so we can use them for human transplants is yet another example.

Xenotransplantation are procedures in which humans receives live cells, tissues or organs from an animal, and experts believe that it could become routine in the future. There is a long history of pig-to-human transplantation. Human valve replacement with a pig heart valve was reported in 1969 and is used to this day.

It hasn’t become mainstream yet because there are many complications. Our immune systems are trained to recognize foreign invaders. Unmodified pig tissues and organs set off alarm bells. The most likely outcome is death from hyperacute rejection, which occurs within minutes of organ transplantation.

So, what is the medical community experimenting with? Since humans cannot be made genetically compatible with pig donors, researchers are introducing  genetic changes to pigs that “humanize” them. In February 2021, Luhan Yang and her team in China reported the creation of a pig with 42 genetic modifications. The result (dubbed Pig 3.0) is the most extensively genetically engineered mammal on the planet.


The Moral Dilemma

In an emergency situation where a kidney or a heart from a human donor is not available, an animal source may seem like a solution. A pig kidney may solve a temporary crisis when a human organ is not available. But there are serious ethical, religious and legal concerns that remain. There will be a likely opposition in Islamic and Jewish cultures. There is also a question of animal rights. What does it mean to be reared as a living factory, have no agency, and be killed so that members of another species may live?

Xenotransplantation is a complex subject, but we must also be certain that the benefits to the human recipients outweigh the risks. One of the central doctrines of bioethics is primum non nocere: first, do no harm.