According to popular science journals Nature and Science, 2020 could be a problematic year for research animals, particularly those involved in experiments surrounding xenotransplantation.
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. In America alone, there are over 100,000 people waiting on transplant lists. But is using animals for human transplants the solution to this problem?
Researchers advocating for this approach have long made promises that xenotransplantation could be a solution to the human organ shortage. However, one of the main challenges they have faced with this ethically-fraught approach is the high likelihood of the organ recipient’s immune system rejecting the transplant. This, along with the animal suffering inherent in xenotransplantation, is one of the reasons why NAVS has argued instead for an increase in efforts to acquire more organs through cadaveric donation.
Yet the research continues, which means more animal experimentation and more animal lives lost. Advancements in stem cell research and gene editing have supplied more fuel to this fire.
According to the journal Nature, a stem-cell researcher in Japan plans to grow human tissue in the embryos of mice and rats. The hybrid embryos will then be transplanted to surrogate animals. These kinds of experiments were prohibited in Japan until last March, when a new law came into effect there. The researcher also plans to do similar experiments with pig embryos, in an effort to generate animals with organs that can be transplanted to people.
The journal Science anticipates that this year, we will see more genetically-modified animals being produced in studies designed to try to make their organs safe for transplanting to humans. Researchers have already made genetic changes to pigs and have targeted genes that they believe will help prevent immune attacks. These pig organs have been transplanted to primates to test the safety and efficacy of this procedure before human trials.
Although the Science article indicates that the transplants “have demonstrated long-term viability in their new hosts,” it fails to mention that results of these experiments have actually been quite variable, with some monkeys living a while with the new organs and others dying quickly.
There is no question that the shortage of organs for patients on transplant lists continues to be a large global dilemma which needs to be addressed. However, we strongly believe that if the time and money invested in xenotransplantation experiments were instead used to bring more awareness to organ donation programs to make them more effective, human and animal suffering would be spared at the same time.
Castelvecchi, D. “The science events to watch for in 2020, Nature, January 2020.
“The science stories likely to make headlines in 2020,” Science, January 2020.
Scheiber, F. “’Opt Out’ Policies Increase Organ Donation,” Stanford University SPARQ website.