More Xenotransplantation Advances

Even if they don’t lead
immediately to treatments in human beings, the announcement of two recent
advances in genetic engineering of organs provides more evidence of the
sort of technologies likely to hit the mainstream of medical technology
before the end of the next decade.

In mid-February researchers
announced in Science News that they had successfully transplanted
bladders grown in the lab into six beagles. The scientists grew the bladder
cells around a plastic form to make it take the shape of the bladder and
then implanted the artificial bladders in the dogs. Within three months
the artificial bladders were completely active and some of the dogs have
had the bladders for almost a year with no problems.

Obviously getting the technology
to work in human beings is a whole other problem, but these experiments
are doing for this technology what the early animal experiments on organ
transplantations did – they suggest solutions and help scientists better
understand the problems they will encounter when seeking to grow human
organs in the lab.

In a related story, Canadian
researchers are hoping to take that step of translating animal experiments
into a treatment for human beings sometime this year. Researchers there
expect for the first time to use a genetically engineered pig liver to
keep a human being alive while waiting for a liver transplant from a human
being.

Pharmaceutical company Novartis,
which has been harshly criticized by animal rights activists for its efforts
in genetic engineering, is reportedly ready to spend up to $1 billion
to develop a viable pig liver. To avoid the risk of spreading disease
from pigs to human beings, the pigs will be raised under special conditions
to assure they are disease free. The pigs are isolated from other animals
and housed in a sterile environment. The pigs are fed by hand to avoid
microbes that might pass from pig to pig while suckling.

The impetus to move forward
with this technology is especially strong in Canada which has a rather
low rate of human organ donation – only 12.1 donors per million people
compared to the U.S. with 17.7 donors per million people.

As I noted two weeks ago,
the Campaign for Responsible Transplantation attacked Americans for Medical Progress for highlighting former Chicago Bear running back Walter Payton’s
recent announcement that he has a rare fatal liver disease. The CRT attack
on AMP, however, seemed like an act of desperation. They tried to throw
everything but the kitchen sink at AMP – xenotransplantation might not
work, it poses a risk of transmitting disease across species, it could
be avoided by increasing the donor pool, etc.

There are many responses to
these claims (CRT doesn’t seem to keep up with recent scientific advancements
in genetic engineering) but as far as I can tell the bottom line is this:
animal rights activism in the medical experimentation field has been successful
largely to the extent that it has engaged people’s sympathies against
hurting animals, especially unnecessarily. But that play on emotionalism
is a double-edged sword, since most people are openly “speciesist”
who, when it comes down to it, will find the suffering and pain of Walter
Payton far more compelling and worthy of alleviation than that of a pig
whose death could save Payton’s life.

What seems to anger CRT to
no end is that AMP gave them a taste of their own medicine with their
focus on Payton. I say more power to them.

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