What is the Deal With Xenotransplantation?

How Genetically Modified Animals Are Helping the Medical Fields

The idea of using genetically modified animal parts to give to human organ transplant recipients, a process called xenotransplantation, is not new to the modern era. According to a National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) article, The Brief History of Cross-Species Organ Transplantation, “Between the 17th and 20th centuries, blood was transfused from various animal species into patients with a variety of pathological conditions. Skin grafts were carried out in the 19th century from a variety of animals, with frogs being the most popular.” There are many situations and examples that show cross-species organ transplants that have occurred over the last couple centuries, but they haven’t been too effective. 

Earlier this month, David Bennett received the world’s first cross-species heart transplant. The 57 year old received a genetically modified pig’s heart, which was modified to get rid of certain genes that would cause the heart to reject the human body. Currently, Bennett is seen in stable and healthy condition, although medical professionals are not yet sure what the long term effects might be. Bennett has a terminal heart disease that left him ineligible to get a human organ transplant. This occurs when doctors deem the patient as too ill to receive the procedure.  “It was either die or do this transplant,” he said the day before the procedure, according to the BBC article “Man Gets Genetically-Modified Pig Heart in World-First Transplant.” 

While the future effects of xenotransplantation are unknown, this is a big step in helping with more patients on the waiting list for an organ transplant. Currently, in the United States, there are over 100,000 people on waiting lists, but, according to the BBC article and surgeon Bartley Griffith, “Currently 17 people die every day in the US waiting for a transplant.” Xenotransplantation can be the step forward into helping the world with organ shortages. With the help of genetic modification and engineering, in the case like David Bennett, genes that cause organs to reject the body can be modified, helping the organ acclimate to the body more easily. “We’ve never done this in a human and I like to think that we, we have given him a better option than what continuing his therapy would have been,” Mr. Griffith said. “But whether [he will live for] a day, week, month, year, I don’t know.”

Another problem with xenotransplantation is ethics. The animals that are used to give organs for potential organ transplants are raised and killed, which brings in the issue of whether it violates animal rights. A PBS article on the topic poses a serious question on the dilemma of xenotransplantation, “Do humans have the right to use other species for their own (medical) purposes? If so, what are the conditions or limits?” Currently the animals are raised with genetic modifications and are then killed to harvest those organs. There is no other way apart from putting them down. Is it worth using other species to help ourselves at the cost of their lives? 

There are two sides to the arguments on the ethics, according to the PBS article, “Environmentalists point out that objectification and commodification of other life forms have caused us to create the ecological conditions that imperil our own species.” In the environmentalist standpoint, taking advantage of modifying animals can pose a threat to our species as humans. There is still the unknown of how the modified animal organs would affect a human. Currently no human that has undergone a xenotransplant has survived to live for a very long time, especially with a heart transplant.

Another view would be a utilitarian view, “A utilitarian ethic judges an action by its effects on humans. A utilitarian would argue that it is wrong to mistreat animals, because it can make them dangerous, not because mistreatment is intrinsically wrong.” To argue with this, the initial logic would be that the transplant of an animal organ to a human body might affect the person’s sensibilities. This is not proven as it is a very old argument made by antivivisectionists – people opposed to experimentation on animals.

Xenotransplantation is continuing to make history, and is a great step forward into helping people, especially those who are waiting on a potential organ transplant. But there is still a strong possibility of risks and the unknown is still big. Xenotransplantation is a source for scientific discovery and trailblazing, but a big source of ethical issues and arguments, as well.