Manufacture of human organs from farm animals – writer’s block

At any given time, 4,000 to 5,000 people are waiting for members in Canada. And every year 200 to 250 people die in Canada while waiting

In an unprecedented surgery, a 57-year-old American with a serious heart condition performed a heart transplant with a genetically modified pig heart on January 7.

Approximately three weeks later, the patient is reported to be still doing well.

The surgery was the first performed by a team from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. It is among the first to demonstrate the feasibility of transplanting a pig-to-human heart, a procedure made possible by new gene-editing tools. Science has given us organ transplantation through gene editing.

Despite the successful operation, the patient is still connected to the heart-lung bypass machine, which keeps him alive. However, for a transplant, this is not out of the ordinary.

Agricultural production has supported our agri-food sector since the beginning of time, primarily to feed humans. It has also developed new careers over the years, for example, with the energy industry.

Now, some researchers are considering animal production to help the health care sector, which is in dire need of the organs. At any given time, 4,000 to 5,000 people are waiting for members in Canada. And every year 200 to 250 people die in Canada while waiting for an organ transplant.

For a patient in Maryland, an external organ transplant was his only option for survival.

Xenotransplantation could save lives — but some people will surely ask questions about the ethical and moral aspects of raising animals to produce life-saving organs.

The university obtained emergency clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration under the Compassionate Use Program a week before the operation. A few days later, the donor pig, which had been raised in a highly sterile environment, was slaughtered to extract its heart.

Science can be amazing. But the concept of a genetically modified pig, designed to produce an organ compatible with humans, will make some people uncomfortable. The science is real, and the debate is justified.

Genital transplantation has been discussed for years, but this is the first successful operation that involves modifying pig genes to increase the chances of compatibility. For years, chimpanzees’ kidneys have been transplanted into humans, even turning a baboon into a baby, but the survival period did not exceed nine months.

After a series of failures, the scientific community temporarily abandoned external organ transplantation – even pigs were considered.

Pork production is better suited to external organ transplantation, as an organ of adequate size can be obtained within six months. Several patients have received valves and other pig parts with positive results, so the concept is not new. But transplanting a whole pig organ is unprecedented.

Before we judge or condemn the practice, we must consider the issue of implant equality.

The hidden side of transplants is associated with racist groups. A black, Asian, or Indigenous person is less likely to receive an organ donation than a white person. Chronic diseases, genetics and blood history make it difficult for them to find a donor. Anyone from these groups has a 50 to 70 percent lower chance of receiving a donation when they are on a waiting list.

But modifying animal genes to support organ transplantation means that it is scientifically more likely to produce compatible organs for everyone, regardless of their genetic makeup. So organ transplantation can further democratize organ donation.

Xenotransplantation supported by gene editing provides humanity with a customized organ donation system. But this comes with its share of vital ethical questions, especially when it comes to the ethical treatment of animals.

There is also always a risk of transmitting swine viruses to humans. And in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that we’ve all been living with for nearly two years, it’s no small feat.

We don’t know much about the genetic modification practices applied to pigs to allow the heart to stop growing once it enters the human body. The company behind the technology, Revivicor, remains top secret. Nor do we know much about what happened to the carcass of the donor pig.

This is a discussion worth getting into. Revivicor could at least give the pig a codename like the British researchers did with the famous cloned sheep Dolly. After all, the pig is the real hero here.

Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Director of the Laboratory of Agri-Food Analytics and Professor of Food Distribution and Policy at Dalhousie University.

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