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Xenotransplantation in action: a gene-edited pig’s heart transplanted into a 57-year-old man

Perhaps you have read about this. It is history in the making. I’m not sure how good it is, though. Recently in the United States, the medical world was revolutionised when a team led by Professor Bartley Griffith at the University of Maryland Medical Centre transplanted the genetically edited heart of a pig into David Bennett Snr, 57. Without the transplant he would have died.

This slice of medical history follows the first human heart transplant which took place more than 50 years ago in South Africa. At that time, Christiaan Barnard said: “It is infinitely better to transplant a heart than to bury it, to be devoured by worms.”

The science of xenotransplantation in this case a pig's heart, genetically modified, transplanted into a 57-year-old man David Bennett senior

The science of xenotransplantation in this case a pig’s heart, genetically modified, transplanted into a 57-year-old man David Bennett senior. The photograph is by the University of Maryland.

Until this full heart transplant there has been the transplantation of animal parts to replace human parts. These operations have had a patchy history. Heart valves from pigs and cows have been routinely grafted into many thousands of patients since the 1960s.

In this instance, 10 pig genes were altered to prevent the new organ from being rejected or attacked as a foreign body. There is no guarantee that the heart will be accepted because rejection is still possible even when a human heart is transplanted into another person.

However, the gene-editing process transforms xenotransplantation from an experimental science which couldn’t work to one that probably will work, albeit a risky one.

The advantages of xenotransplantation are the availability of organs. Sometimes people have to wait to 2 years for a transplant. And it isn’t just hearts that are being transplanted. Last year another American team used a similar technique to transplant a pig’s kidney.

The team also used an experimental drug to suppress the immune system to improve the chances of acceptance of the new heart. And a new machine was employed that pushed fluid through the tissue to make sure the pig’s heart remain viable until the operation.

There are nearly 107,000 people in the United States waiting for a transplant. Seventeen of them die daily according to the federal agency Health Resources and Services Administration.

We have to think of the pigs. You are killing a pig before genetically modifying their heart. That’s the way I read it. So, a pig gave up his or her life without consent to save the life of a human. That might sound ridiculous to 90% of the world’s population. Why should that be an issue? To an animal advocate it is an issue. If the 107,000 people in the US waiting for transplants get their transplants because of mass produced animal organs, we are going to have a large number of animal deaths.

If this procedure grows and becomes more efficient and effective and indeed highly successful then there will be an animal welfare and animal rights issue to discuss in my view. I think we need to put on the table the issues regarding animal rights which underpinned this groundbreaking medical procedure.

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