Will pig-to-human transplants cause farmers to grow hearts?
Why breed pigs for meat when they can be bred for transplant?
This, to be sure, is a steeply discounted price. After PPL Therapeutics announced in 2000 that they had cloned five piglets, their shares jumped 19%, bringing the value of the company to over $130 million.
That made Alexis, Carrel, Christa, Dotcom and Millie, born at PPL’s laboratory in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA on March 5, 2000, worth around a cool $4.2 million apiece––nearly three times the estimated value of their descendant whose heart was transplanted into David Bennett, 57, on January 7, 2022 at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.
The pig-cloning scientific breakthrough back in 2000 put PPL Therapeutics way ahead of its competitors in the race to be first to create commercial quantities of pigs to supply organs and cells for transplant to humans. If they corner that market, the former division of PPL now doing business as Revivicor could be raking in around $10 billion a year––even selling pig hearts at the discounted rate.
One technique is to de-activate a gene called alpha 1-3 gal transferase. This gene produces a sugar in pig cells which the human immune system recognizes and attacks, causing organ rejection. Once you turn off that gene, removing the sugars which identify a pig organ as a pig organ, the human immune system is less likely to attack the transplanted liver, kidney or heart. Coupled with tailor-made anti-rejection drugs, modified pigs could provide an endless supply of organs for transplant to humans.
Sheep on a rooftop
The scientists suggested I was dafter than the sheep and spouting scaremongering nonsense.
Retroviruses sent the pig-cloning business to the U.S.
That ban on animal to human transplants is still in force in the U.K., but those set to make vast profits from such transplants are lobbying hard for permission to start clinical trials.
Companies have also moved their research out of the U.K. to other countries, such as the United States, where such strict controls are not in force.
At the hazard of again being called a scaremonger, I have to disagree that pig viruses present a risk only to individuals receiving pig organs. What scares me is that there already exist herds of pigs modified to make their tissues more like human tissue. These animals could be acting as incubators for new diseases to which humans have no resistance or medication.
It would not take a transplant to transfer such diseases to humans. All it would take would be for a laboratory worker to pick up the illness from contact with the animals and then carry that illness home and into the wider community.
At the moment only a few relatively small herds of genetically modified pigs exist. Now that cloning these animals is a reality, along with transplanting their organs into humans there could be hundreds of large herds within just a few years. The risk of a potential new pandemic of lethal disease is about to multiply.
Not ten bucks a pound
Lack of ethical & political controls
Pig to human transplant experiments highlight the lack of ethical and political controls on research. Despite the risks to humans, and the fact that our public health services may never be able to afford these new procedures, scientists have been allowed to go ahead. Thousands of animals have suffered and died, yet all we currently have to show for it is the risk of a new disease.
Politicians should also suspend all xenotransplant research until the risks have been fully identified and the ethics of subjecting animals to the suffering involved in these dubious experiments is fully debated.
Not just animals at risk
[John Robins’ guest column for ANIMALS 24-7, above, required surprisingly little updating from an earlier edition published by the Edinburgh Evening News on March 15, 2000.]