Now, the idea of putting pig organs in a living human may sound scary and weird to you, but for scientists, this has been a viable concept for a while now. Go figure, right? There are two pretty serious problems with the idea of xenotransplants–inter-species transplants–but they can both be solved with a little DNA tinkering (which science is definitely getting way better at).
The first problem is that humans have an adverse immune response to receiving pig organs–much worse than when we reject the organ of another human. They’re a completely different species and our bodies know it.
The other problem is that pig organs in particular have a sequence of DNA that codes for viruses–called porcine endogenous retroviruses (or PERVs)–that infect human cells. With gene-editing technology, scientists can eliminate both problems right at the DNA level, making pig organs totally usable in humans–in theory.
Why pigs? Pig organs are about the same size as humans’ and doctors believe they function about the same way. Pigs are also easy to breed–which is crucial to meet demand–and since they are used for consumption, scientists hope that helps with the ethical question.
Ah yes, the ethical question. Of course there are ethical concerns when it comes to breeding animals from which humans are going to harvest organs. Dr. Atul Humar from the University Health Network’s multi-organ transplant program explains that the number of pigs raised for organs would be considerably less than those raised for eating and they would be treated far better.
On average, one million pigs are slaughtered a year for human consumption, while only several thousand would be needed to meet the organ demand. The animals would also need to be treated well and kept in pristine health for their organs to be acceptable for human transplant.
We also need to consider that these organs are going to ease the burden on the current donor waiting list. There is a huge organ shortage in Canada with individuals waiting years and many dying before they have an opportunity for a transplant. There are also thousands of people in Canada who would benefit from an organ replacement but don’t even make it to the waiting list because there are others who need it more desperately.
There is sure to be more resistance, but Dr. Humar is confident that we could see pig to human transplants of hearts, livers, kidneys, lungs and pancreases begin clinical trials within the next three to five years. He also projects that this could be common medical practice within the next ten. That means a lot of us may have that option in our lifetimes. What a terrifying, yet thrilling thought (you know, because it would mean you get to live, but also that you might have a pig heart).