Xenotransplantation is a big deal in medicine. Once the domain of science fiction, it pertains to transplanting animal organs into humans. In recent news, scientists made an important breakthrough that could enable pig organs to successfully transplant.
The biggest problem up to this point was the prevalence of swine viruses that can spread to people. Some of these viruses imbed in the pigs’ DNA and can remain dormant indefinitely. Once transplanted to a human patient, those viruses could become active and cause an otherwise preventable epidemic.
Scientists resolved this issue with gene therapy. They have found a methodology that completely removes the virus laden DNA from the pigs altogether. The result is healthy pigs that are one step closer to being eligible organ donors.
While this was the first major hurdle, there are still major issues preventing successful xenotransplantation. The technical limitations seem to be only temporary, as scientists continue to prove their ability to leap these hurdles through research. In the future, ethics will be the major battleground.
Currently, a shortage of organs for transplant is one of the biggest problems in medicine. Since organs can only be harvested from willing, deceased, human donors, the supply is sharply limited. In fact, the organ shortage is a major cause of early deaths for patients who are receiving medical care. A better supply chain to provide life-saving organs could birth a new renaissance for medicine and improve life expectancy and quality of life on par with cesarean sections and antibiotics.
One of the first ethical hurdles was a fear that xenotransplants could cause more harm than good. As that becomes less of a fear, the discussion moves to more complicated issues centered around consent and animal rights. In many cases, the need for a new organ is sudden and leaves patients incapacitated. Is it ok to give them animal organs when they are unable to provide any form of consent? Conversely, is it cruelty to harvest organs from animals for the sake of humans? These will be the chief talking points as the FDA is forced to adapt to the changing landscape of modern medicine.