The process of grafting or transplanting organs or tissues between members of different species, or xenotransplantation, will become commonplace over the next three years, according to Sir Terence English who, in 1979, completed the first successful heart transplant in the United Kingdom. 40 years later, Sir Terrance and his team are pioneers in the field of xenotransplantation and will try to replace a human kidney with a hog’s this year.
Researchers look to xenotransplantation as a possible solution to the world organ donor crisis. Sir Terrance said, “If the result of xenotransplantation is satisfactory with porcine kidneys to humans then it is likely that hearts would be used with good effects in humans within a few years. If it works with a kidney, it will work with a heart. That will transform the issue.”
Today across the United Kingdom, there are 280 individuals on a waiting list for a donor heart. Experts say the demand for donor organs is only going to increase with a rapidly aging population. As Treehill Partners recently reported, bioprinting is being tested to help bridge the gap. But in the immediate term, researchers are looking to greater experimentation with xenotransplantation as a donor organ solution.
Given similarities in the size of human organs and that of hogs, scientists have been experimenting with transplanting pig organs into monkeys and baboons. Additionally, scientists have successfully created hybrid hog/ human embryos by splicing stem cells. The idea is that the embryos could develop and produce organs for transplant. Researchers admittedly recognize ethical concerns with this practice, but highlight that the hybrid embryos do not develop “brain tissue” thus do not develop a consciousness.
Philip Lymbery, from Compassion in World Farming, opposes such research, saying “Growing human organs in animals is not the solution, and could open up a whole new source of animal suffering. We should be focussing our efforts on getting more people to donate their organs. Genetically editing and cloning animals carries terrible consequences for their welfare” and may possibly translate to human disease down the line.
And Dr David King, Director of Human Genetics Alert, said: “I find these experiments disturbing. I am concerned that human organs or tissues produced in pigs might carry pig viruses into the human population” which is only one of the possibly numerous adverse results of trans-species gene pool pollution.
Such criticism may however fall on deft ears to many of the over 6,500 people across the United Kingdom waiting for a donor organ, seeing annually 500 people die before receiving transplant.