Science

Could farm animals solve the organ donor crisis?

For many who spend years on organ donor lists, the long wait may soon be coming to an unusual end. Thanks to a common farm animal– the pig-  the medical practice of transferring tissues and organs from one species to another (xenotransplantation) has reached new levels, with an entire heart being successfully implanted. The owner of the new organ, David Bennett, underwent an eight-hour long procedure at the University of Maryland Medical Centre after having been admitted to the hospital for weeks for a terminal heart condition.

  Although the use of pig or bovine tissue in valve replacement surgeries is relatively old news, progress in whole organ xenotransplants has been slow. Interest in this alternative to human-to-human transplants waned over the years due to the increased risk posed by organ rejection, where the body’s immune system attacks the foreign tissue after identifying it as a risk. With the long-term consequences of the experimental surgery yet to be seen, medical experts hope observations over the next few months will help confirm the procedure is as successful.

    Advances in gene-editing technology are largely responsible for making such a feat possible. The pig from which Mr Bennett received the heart contained gene-knockouts. In the engineering process, pig DNA is altered to remove the “markers” responsible for organ rejection, after which the animals are raised until their adult organs have developed to an appropriate stage. Expectedly, such a technique raises a slurry of ethical concerns regarding animal rights, the risk posed to potential patients and even religious considerations.

    In the case of this recent surgery, Dr Alka Chandna, Vice President of Laboratory Investigations Cases at PETA states “animal-to-human transplants are unethical, dangerous, and a tremendous waste of resources that could be used to fund research that might actually help humans”.

    The question of whether the ethical concerns raised by animal rights organisations and bioethics professionals are enough to halt xenotransplantation remains unanswered for now. However, there is no denying the positive implications the surgery has for resolving the crisis of organ donor shortages. 


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08/02/2022

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Mariam Jallow



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