Staggeringly, more than 117,000 people in the US alone are waitlisted for organ transplants due to a huge shortage of organ availability. This sees 22 people die daily while they wait for a suitable organ to become available and a new person is added to the waiting list every ten minutes. It seems that scientists are currently putting their hope in genetically modified pigs.
Just like primates, pigs’ organs are similar in function and size to human organs, as a result, many people are in favour of using pigs as organ donors. However, due to the risk of virus transmission through organ transplant, especially cross-species organ transplants, called xenotransplants, this concept has yet not been implemented.
Some strains of virus and disease are carried by an animal without affecting them, but it’s unknown what effect the virus might have on other species when a transplant is performed. In pigs, these are called PERVs, which stands for Porcine Endogenous Retroviruses. Pigs’ genomes contain 25 PERVs and these have been blocking progress on xenotransplantation between humans and pigs.
However, recently, Massachusetts-based scientists have announced that they successfully de-activated all 25 PERVs in pigs genomes using a gene-editing system. What’s more, the genetically modified piglets appear perfectly healthy. Before these piglets scientists were unsure of whether a pig could develop effectively without the presence of PERVs. Additionally the gene-editing system the scientists used can cause breaks in strands of DNA, which is toxic to cells and makes them self-destruct.
“I generally hesitate to say we’ve solved a two-decade-old problem, but in this case, we have.” – George Church on their successful experiment.
But does this really solve the problem? When the world is becoming increasingly concerned with animal welfare and health will the American public want a genetically modified pig’s heart inside them?
The increased demand for organs in the US is a result of poor health and diet plays a huge part in that. Increasingly, people are becoming aware of the benefits of a plant-based diet, which reduces the risk of heart disease and strokes amongst other illnesses. Educating people on their food choices and encouraging them to eat less meat seems a lot less radical than genetically modifying pigs for their organs.
In addition to this, the process of genetically modifying pigs involves cruelty to animals that farming them for their meat does not. Meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike are likely to be concerned by the ethics of genetically modifying creatures. The scientists themselves were surprised by the success of their experiment, they risked creating unhealthy pigs. Animals involved in scientific experimentation are expected to be treated ‘humanely’ but there are so many loopholes in legislature that this means they can essentially be treated in whatever way scientists deem appropriate.
As people are asking for stricter regulations in farming, to then provide them with organs from a largely unregulated sector seems contradictory.
Ultimately, Church’s assertion that they have ‘solved a two-decade old problem‘ might not be as definitive as it seems. There are a lot more questions to be answered.