“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the major stories and debates of the day.
What is happening
Earlier this month, doctors in Maryland performed the world’s first heart transplant . The experimental procedure, performed on a 57-year-old man with end-stage heart disease, is considered a major breakthrough in the burgeoning field of cross-species organ transplants.
The heart transplant came just months after two teams of scientists broke new ground in separate experiments carried out on brain-dead bodies that had been donated to science.
The theory of animal-to-human transplants, , dates back hundreds of years. It wasn’t until recently, however, that this goal seemed to be within reach. Advances in gene-editing technology are now allowing scientists to overcome what was once an insurmountable obstacle to cross-species transplantation: the human immune response that recognizes and attacks foreign tissue in the body. The heart used by the Maryland doctors came from a pig that had 10 distinct genetic modifications, including inactivated porcine genes and added human genes, to prevent the recipient’s body from rejecting the organ.
The researchers hope these experiments will prove to be the first steps in a process that will ultimately turn animals into a viable solution to the severe organ shortage that leads to thousands of deaths in the United States each year. Although were conducted in the United States last year, . On average, 17 people die every day while waiting for an organ transplant.
Why there is debate
The arguments for further research into xenotransplantation are simple. If science advances to the point where animal organs are a readily available option for human transplants, it could prevent countless deaths around the world each year. In the eyes of scientists, the value to humans would outweigh the harm to animals. “People talk about the ethics of doing science,” said a researcher , “but I would also say that we should consider the ethics of not doing this science.”
Animal rights groups, unsurprisingly, oppose the idea of using animals for human transplants. “Animals are not tool sheds to be plundered but complex and intelligent beings,” a spokesperson for noted. Others question the ethics of creating a class of animals for the sole purpose of slaughtering them to harvest organs. Some also claim that there is a lot to be done to increase the supply of certain organs, like the kidneys, from human sources that would not cause anyone to die.
There are also concerns about the top spot. Many bioethicists say that creating creatures with human and animal genes raises complicated questions about the true boundary between man and beast. They also ask for strict guidelines on how much human material a creature can have before it begins to deserve consideration that ordinary animals wouldn’t.
There are still enormous scientific, logistical, and legal hurdles that will need to be overcome before animal-to-human transplants can become a realistic option for the typical transplant patient. Most experts say it will likely be several years before xenotransplantation is conducted outside of scientific research.
A future where no one dies while waiting for a transplant is worth pursuing
Grafts are nearly harmless compared to slaughtering livestock
Xenotransplantation may help reverse racial inequities in who gets transplants
Human lives are simply more valuable than animal lives
“I see no reason to oppose this approach – assuming safety and efficacy – unless you are an animal rights supporter who thinks pigs are of equal value to humans. But they don’t. A rat is not a pig, is not a dog, is not a boy. —Wesley J. Smith,
Organ Shortage Creates Its Own, Much Deeper Ethical Problems
“The treatment must be distributed equitably. Physicians are not qualified to tell “sinners from saints,” nor do we think they should decide which patients are the most deserving.” —Dominique Wilkinson,
Killing animals for human needs is indefensible in any case
“The practice of breeding, rearing and killing pigs for our needs is also deeply problematic. Pigs have conscience, emotionality, caring bonds and more. That’s more than enough to make the practice of raising pigs for xenotransplantation massively harmful to pigs, even if the practice is beneficial to some humans. —Jeff Sebo
Gene editing raises troubling questions about the boundary between humans and animals
“Getting a pig’s kidney won’t magically turn anyone into a Babe, but what about a pig’s liver? Or better yet, a pig’s heart? You know the slippery slope — today it’s not is just a pig’s kidney, but tomorrow we’re all galloping across Doctor Moreau’s island. It’s a bit dramatic, of course, but the fears of breaching the barrier between humans and animals are persistent and inexorable. —Peter McKnight,
Major ethical issues are ignored in the pursuit of a medical breakthrough
“Assuming that pigs are the future of xenotransplantation assumes that there is no ethical problem in creating a new form of animal husbandry based on genetic modification and slaughter on demand for spare parts. And yet, a surprising number of medical professionals, bioethicists and media covering xenotransplantation have remained silent on the subject. — Jan Dutkiewicz
Much can be done to make organs more available without killing animals
“Most of the time development makes me sad that humans have been so unwilling to step in and donate kidneys to themselves – or create the policies that would encourage such an act – that they resort to taking them from another species. Kidney donation is a routine and safe procedure, which humans could and probably would be more willing to provide if compensated.—Dylan Matthews,
The debate changes according to the manipulated organ
“It seems likely that we would view an animal with human brain or reproductive cells differently than an animal with, say, human liver cells. In these cases, the ethic of “humanization” begins to make more sense. —Nathaniel Scharping
There are also serious ethical challenges regarding humans involved in research.
“There is no doubt that using pigs as organ sources is the future. … But early efforts often fail. Those brave enough to leap into the unknown must be especially clear that they went ahead at the right time and with the right patient, who fully understood the risks involved.—Several authors,
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images