The shortage of organs for patients on transplant lists continues to be a large global dilemma. In America alone, there are over 100,000 people waiting on organ transplant lists. The research community seems to think that using animals for human transplants is the solution and has been working on this issue for a long time.
Scientists have been looking into xenotransplantation, the process of transplanting tissues or organs between members of different species, as a solution to our organ shortage problem for many years. One of the main intrinsic challenges with this approach is the high likelihood of the organ recipient’s immune system rejecting the transplant.
Because of recent advances in gene editing tools, some researchers have been going to great lengths to genetically modify pigs in an effort to try to make their organs safe for transplanting to humans. They are making changes to the animals and targeting genes that they believe would help prevent immune attacks, and many animals are losing their lives in experiments involving these new organs. Pig organs are commonly transplanted to monkeys, and results from these experiments have been variable, with some monkeys living a while with the new organs and others dying quickly. “We feel there is some biological reason for that. We are investigating and trying to fix that,” according to Luhan Yang, cofounder of eGenesis, a startup company focused on transplantation.
That just means more animal testing, and more animal lives lost.
But what if the time and money invested in cross-species transplantation experiments were instead used to modify existing organ donation programs to make them more effective? Doing so could spare both human and animal suffering at the same time and alleviate the motivation to conduct these kinds of transplantation experiments.
In particular, NAVS would like to see the U.S. move from the current “opt in” system, in which people authorize organ donations before they die, to an “opt out” system. In that way, anyone who dies would be presumed a donor unless they opted out. Some countries already utilize this presumed consent approach and have larger numbers of organs available. To spare animal lives, it is certainly worth exploring here.
NAVS understands that the shortage of organs available for transplantation needs to be addressed and believes that increasing our efforts to acquire more organs through cadaveric donation would be safer and more effective than xenotransplantation and would spare human and animal suffering at the same time.
Source: Weintraub, K. “A CRISPR startup is testing pig organs in monkeys to see if they’re safe for us,” MIT Technology Review, June 2019.