Xenotransplantation: Good or Bad?
Concepts, Processes and Effects
The term ‘xenotransplantation refers to medical procedures, where the living cells, tissues or organs from one species of animal are inserted into, or attached to the body of an animal of another species (1) For instance, in New Zealand pigs cells are being trialed as a treatment for Type One Diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. This is done by small pieces of pancreas or pancreatic cells being transferred from the pig into the human recipient to produce more insulin and therefore theoretically providing a treatment for Type One Diabetes in human beings. Many people refer to xenotransplantation as the insertion of an ‘organ’ into an animal taken from another animal of a different species, but this is incorrect. Xenotransplantation refers to any living cell from one animal being transplanted into the body of another. This can include the skin cells of a pig being used as a skin graft on a human being. Xenotransplants can be seen as a way to enhance the modern world’s medical technology, if the procedures were to have a high success rate and little chance of complications, it could potentially shorten the time an individual must wait to find a suitable human donor, and the time for all the mandatory procedures immensely. The number of deaths amongst awaiting patients would be reduced, as the response time for a matching donor to be found would not be as difficult as both human and animal donors would be considered, therefore substantially lowering the number of individuals deaths due to organ failure or other complications. But the procedure can also be seen as life threatening, not only for the recipient but the donor also.
There are multiple factors to be considered when discussing xenotransplantation, such as the compatibility of a human’s genetic makeup and that of another species. These can include; size of the organs involved, postural differences, body temperatures, body pH, molecular compatibility and hormones (1). Focusing on the pig transplants being trialed in New Zealand, there are many complications that could occur within the procedure. The compatibility of a human and pig is significantly greater than a human and a primate such as a gorilla. This is due to the notably different genetic makeup between the two species. For example if the donor of an organ was a pig, and the recipient was human postural difference would become an issue. As pigs stand and walk on four legs, the organs will have become accustomed to that postural position, the organs would not be adapted to the postural position of humans and the fact humans do not walk on four legs but two. Another example of a complication that could come into play following a xenotransplant, where a pig is the donor is body temperatures. Pig blood is significantly warmer than human at around 39°C - 40°C, whereas human blood typically sits at approximately 37°C making it difficult for a new organ to adapt to the significant change in body temperature, which can then lead to fatal complications. A xenotransplant that involves a major organ such as the heart or lungs can be successful or fatal. Research says that ‘as long as the transplanted organs are roughly the right size, physical problems may be relatively minimal’ (1). In saying this, the heart and lungs are a highly sensitive system, if one small problem were to occur following a xenotransplant the results may be of extreme danger to the patient. There is concern surrounding the process, as there is a chance the proteins that are produced by pig livers may not function properly in a human host. Therefore xenotransplantation are considered safer when it is a more minimal transplant such as a cell cluster rather than a whole organ such as a heart, liver or pair of lungs. Not only are there negatives to the process, but also multiple positives that can benefit not only the patient but society as a whole. An ongoing problem that has put many