How We Might End Up Eating Organ Donors

by Vincent on September 16, 2017 - 5:18pm

Pigs and people, sadly for them and fortunately for us, are anatomically similar in shape and size, which makes them possibly fit to donate organs to humans – a process called “xenotransplantation”. As hazardous as this may sound, modern science is finding ways to make it safe.

The major issue with xenotransplantation is that pigs have viruses (known as “porcine endogenous retroviruses”, or PERVs) “embedded in their own DNA”. When pig and human cells grow alongside, which happens after transplantation, those viruses may get passed across cells and cause diseases such as cancer.

To get rid of the PERVs, a team lead by Luhan Yang from the eGenesis firm have edited the pigs’ genome to disable their viruses and obtain animals that were safer for xenotransplantation to people. However, their technique is not perfect yet since only 15 out of 37 PERVs-free piglets have survived. Additionally, there might be other unknown viruses still hidden in the pig genome, so there is still work to be done before this technique becomes accepted.

“Well, science is actually there”. This is what most of us will think while reading this article. Since Dolly the sheep was cloned twenty years ago, genetic editing has progressed immensely and now yields ground-breaking applications in medicine.

Of course, these new techniques raise ethical issues. Many people feel uncomfortable when seeing that life can be modified at will to such an extent. Animal rights activists will also regret that pigs are treated like commodities, with almost no regard for their lives. Nevertheless, no matter what we think of gene-editing, we all have to learn how it will affect our lives and our society since it will most likely become increasingly used.

Personally, I believe that we should overlook ethical concerns related to gene-editing and rather think of the thousands of people who urgently need organ transplantation. Also, if xenotransplantation becomes common, pigs might begin to be seen as “life-savers” instead as just food, so maybe we will perceive them more positively and demand that they should be treated more ethically, thus advancing animal rights. Or maybe I am wrong. Maybe we will still view them just as bacon and eat our new organ donors.


You can read the full article by Clare Wilson on New Scientist: