In the very near future the meat served on your dinner plate may have played two roles; one of filling an empty belly with food and another as the incubator to grow a new human organ. Scientists in Japan are expecting the government to grant approval for the process soon.
While the initial reaction of raising animals for the purpose of growing organs for human transplant is shocking, it also brings up some unique ethical questions.
For instance, “Is there a difference between raising animals that will be slaughtered for food over those raised for organ donation?” And, “Is the slaughter of animals used as organ incubators morally justified if it gives very sick people a second chance for a healthy life?”
According to the United Network For Organ Sharing (UNOS) there are currently 118,608 people in the United States waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant. During the past five years organ transplants have topped out at approximately 28,500 a year. Most people die while waiting for a new heart, lung or liver. And while patients with kidney disease can prolong their lives with hemodialysis treatment, 10 percent of those on the transplant list also die before they receive a new organ. The statistics are just as staggering in other countries, as well.
To solve the problem scientists in Japan are using a method that introduces a “human stem cell into the embryo of an animal – most likely a pig – to create what is termed a ‘chimeric embryo’ that can be implanted into an animal’s womb.”
They can grow a kidney, heart or pancreas. When the pig matures and is ready for slaughter the organ can be removed and transplanted into a human patient.
Support for the procedure is widespread in Japan, but other countries have raised concerns and have not moved forward. Japanese scientists have lobbied their government for the past three years to take the process to the next level. Currently they are allowed to develop an embryo for 14 days and have not been permitted to implant it into an animal’s womb.
As soon as the government agrees to the new guidelines, scientists such as Professor Hiromitsu Nakauchi at the University of Tokyo believe they can implant the first pig within 12 months.
They plan to breed a pig with a pancreas. “It is relatively easy organ to create,” said Dr. Nakauchi. “Perfecting the technique will bring relief to millions of people with diabetes.”
Within five years kidneys and even a human heart are scheduled to be ready for implantation.
So, are Japanese scientists justified in their thinking? Is implanting a human organ into a pig’s womb a miracle of science or a morally repulsive idea that should be stopped and shelved until a less catastrophic one comes along?
Photo Credit: USDAgov