Posted by Dr Katy Taylor on 20th December 2018
Pigs hearts transplanted into baboons - latest in long line of grotesque animal transplant experiments
Why the barbaric use of animals for human organ replacement needs to end
Two baboons recently managed to survive for six months after receiving transplanted pig hearts – a so-called ‘success’ which is being hailed as a significant step towards animal-to-human transplants1.
Xenotransplantation (the transplanting of organs from one species to another) has been attempted thousands of times using animals and has monumentally failed because of problems with safety, species differences and organ rejection. Yet researchers from Germany claim to have discovered new techniques to help tackle some of these problems2.
Genetically modified pigs, whose organs had been tweaked to be more compatible with the baboon’s immune system, were killed and their hearts were subsequently transplanted into three groups of captive-bred baboons from the German Primate Research Centre whose own hearts had been surgically removed. With each successive group of animals, the researchers adjusted their approach to try and improve survival outcome.
The first group of baboons died of severe heart failure after receiving pig hearts that had been stored in ice. The second group of baboons survived for longer after receiving pig hearts that had been preserved in an oxygen and nutrient-rich solution, but eventually died due to rapid overgrowth of the transplanted heart. The final group of baboons were injected with drugs every day after the transplant surgery to prevent the pig hearts from growing too big inside their bodies. Two of the animals managed to survive for six months but only one remained relatively healthy until he was killed at the end of the experiment.
Despite the hype over this ‘success’, there are scientists who are not convinced that this approach would work in humans. Dr. Charles Murray, director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Washington, said “I don’t think we’re ready for this step just yet, neither scientifically nor societally. Scientifically, we need to learn more about the long-term immune response to the foreign organ and whether there is evidence for viruses or other disease agents being transmitted”3. Evidently, the use of animals as organ donors for humans remains a long way off from being a realistic solution for organ replacement.
Sadly, this is just the latest in a long line of grotesque experiments claiming to bring us ‘closer’ to human transplants, something which has been explored for decades with limited success. Cruelty Free International has repeatedly spoken out against these types of claims4 and firmly supports the call to increase the availability of human organs by changing the donor system from an ‘opt in’ one to an ‘opt out’ one. In countries where this system has been adopted, there has been a 25% rise in the number of donors5. Clearly, this is where the solution lies and not in the barbaric use of animals as ‘spare parts’.
- Pig-to-human heart transplants ‘one step closer’ after success with baboons. (2018). The Independent, 10 December: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/pig-human-heart-transplant-baboons-organ-donation-trial-science-lmu-munich-a8668976.html
- Consistent success in life-supporting porcine cardiac xenotransplantation. (2018). Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0765-z
- Pig hearts can function for months in baboons, study shows, bringing us closer to their use in humans (2018). CNN, 5 December: https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/05/health/pig-heart-transplant-baboons-study/index.html
- Xenotransplantation not a solution. (2010). British Medical Journal: http://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/11/02/xenotransplantation-not-solution
- Organ donation: does an opt-out system increase transplants? (2017) BBC News, 10 Sep: https://www.bbc.com/news/health-41199918