Friday, 8 June 2007

Pig-to-human xenotransplants

Since many humans are very afraid of death and illness, there is a constant quest to find cures for diseases and malfunctions of the body. When an organ in the human body fails, it can nowadays be replaced with a healthy organ from a donor. Kidneys can be taken from living humans who are okay with getting on with only one kidney, while livers, hearts and other single organs will have to be taken from a dead human.

There is, however, a shortage of donated organs, and patients will often have to wait very long, and pay very large sums of money for it. Organs are big business, and there are sometimes reports of criminals killing people for their organs, or tricking people for a kidney.

Another possibility might be to transplant organs from genetically modified pigs. Pigs are very similar in size and form, and with genetical modification, it could be possible to make them even more similar to the human who would get the organ. Here is a basic Q&A about pig-to-human xenotransplants.

But pig organ transplants are dangerous and costly. Professor Sheila McLean and Doctor Laura Williamson spent 16 months putting together a 700-page document on the legal and ethical implications of xenotransplantation, and to help formulate a strategy for proceeding with the contentious technology.

"Its conclusions, leaked to The Observer at the end of June 2003, warn that the NHS and companies involved would be liable for a huge lawsuit if new, potentially lethal viruses emerge from the practice of putting pig cells and organs into the human body. And if the disease - which some experts have warned could create a new HIV-type virus - spreads across the world, the Government could be sued for breaching international law.

Patients would also have to choose between death and agreeing to lifelong monitoring and not to have unprotected sex or children, in case any disease could be passed on to another generation."

In the end, the government decided not to publish parts of the report, causing wide outrage.
Something else that could only be published after years of legal battle are the Diaries of Despair, a report on "the secret history of pig-to-primate organ transplants", which in horrific detail reveals one of Britain's most extreme programmes of animal experimentation, made to prepare the way for pig-to-human organ transplants.

Finally, Xenotransplantation - How Bad Science and Big Business Put the World at Risk from Viral Pandemics (Mae-Wan Ho and Joe Cummins, ISIS Sustainable Science Audit #2) "exposes the shoddy science that puts the world at risk of viral pandemics for the sake of corporate profit, and concludes that xenotranplantation should not be allowed to continue in any form. Instead, effort should be devoted to developing safer, more sustainable and affordable alternatives that are already showing promise and will be more likely to benefit society as a whole in the industrialized west as well as in the Third World."

Read more in this Stanford article.


This whole issue makes me think of Mikhail Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog, where a professor implants human testicles and pituitary gland into a stray dog called Sharik. (The story deeply disapponted me, as I had always thought it would be about a human who gets a dog heart transplant and turns doglike (and becomes a bigshot in the new Soviet Russia). But instead, it's a dog that gets human organs, and slowly turns more and more like the human donor (and becomes a bigshot in the new Soviet Russia). Hmm, so why "heart of a dog "? I only like the story because of the dog's internal monologues, before and after his period as the (mostly) human "Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov" ...)

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