Genetically Altered Pig Heart Transplant: The Pros and Cons of Xenotransplantation For Humans

When it comes to the promise of medicine, there is no debate that the ability to treat and cure a variety of diseases is a remarkable advancement. For many of those with life-threatening disorders, the prospect of xenotransplantation – the transplantation of an animal organ into a human body – is a potential medical breakthrough. Today, the most promising technology lies within transplanting a genetically altered pig heart into a human body.

History of Pig-to-Human Heart Transplant

The practice of xenotransplantation dates back to the 1989, when operations to transplant pig hearts into primates began. The purpose of these transplants centered on the idea of bridging a patient in need of a new heart until a human organ became available. While success was reported in some primates, the duration that the transplanted hearts would remain functioning in the body was short-lived.

More recently, however, pig hearts were transplanted into baboons and have managed to keep the primates alive for over a year. These results have spurred new interest in the possibility of a full transplantation of a genetically modified pig heart into a human body.

Risks of Transplantation

Even though similar organs can be found between most animals and humans, there is a real risk of possible diseases being spread from the animal to the human. This risk of transmission is especially heightened after genetic alteration, since new mutations can occur that may make a virus or bacteria more adapted or infectious. In addition, the immune system may recognize the animal organ as foreign and reject it, making any procedure moot.

In order to reduce this inherent risk, scientists have created a number of tests to monitor compatibility between organ and the host. They are also running experiments to establish the environmental conditions that could favor successful heart transplants.

Pros of Pig-to-Human Heart Transplants

Nevertheless, the potential benefits of a successful pig-to-human heart transplant should not be overlooked. Here are a few of the major advantages:

Shortage of Human Donor Organs: Currently, there is a vast shortage of human donor organs for heart transplants. This wait list can be filled with a successful xenotransplant, opening up the possibility of life-saving work for those who would have none.

Improved Quality of Life: If the transplant were successful, it could improve the overall quality of life for the patient significantly. For example, a successful transplant could make a major difference in the way the patient celebrated holidays and spent time with loved ones.

Potential for Medical Advances: Pig-to-human heart transplantation opens up the possibility of further medical advances. Research into how organs survive and function in the human body could lead to more effective treatments for a variety of conditions.

Cons of Pig-to-Human Heart Transplants

Unfortunately, there are numerous potential drawbacks to xenotransplantation as well. These can range from the severe possibility of infection to shorter organ survival times. Here are just some of the risks:

Tissue Rejection: As previously mentioned, the immune system in the recipient can react strongly to the foreign organ, leading to tissue rejection and the eventual demise of the transplanted organ. This can be even more likely to occur in the case of a genetically modified heart.

Infectious Diseases: With an animal to human transplant comes the risk of infection, as diseases can be spread through the exchange of bodily fluids. The transplant recipient is particularly at risk, as their immune system may have difficulty fighting off any viruses or bacteria originating from the animal organ.

Organ Shortages: Even if xenotransplantation did prove successful, the number of organs available would be limited by the number of animals that can be bred, grown, and harvested. Until this technology is further refined, the shortage of human donor organs will remain.

The Possibility of Human Cloning

A controversial element of xenotransplantation is the possibility of human cloning for the purpose of organ transplantation. This entails the cloning of a person who is tissue and genetically compatible with a recipient, in order to create additional viable organs for use in a transplant.

The ethical separation between this and traditional forms of cloning stem from the fact that the cloning would take place for purely medical, not reproductive, purposes. Nevertheless, it is an issue that remains controversial within the medical community.

Genetically altered pig heart transplants remain an exciting prospect for many within the medical community and beyond. While the inherent risks of disease transmission remains a concern, the possibilities for extending human life make the idea of xenotransplantation a compelling one. It is essential, however, that any procedure remain strictly within ethical boundaries while also maintaining the care and well being of the transplant recipient in mind.