In Kazuo Ishiguro’s heart-breaking novel Never Let Me Go, human clones are raised so their organs can be harvested for transplantation when the clones are teenagers. The novel is set in a dystopian alternate-history version of 1990s Great Britain. Fast-forward twenty years, however, and a different scenario is edging closer to reality: human-compatible organs grown in pigs.
A recent Science News article reported that Americans generally support genetically engineering animals in ways that would aid human health. The article is based on a Pew Research Center study done in April and May of this year. (Pew is a highly-respected opinion research organization that conducts surveys on a wide range of topics.)
The study asked “a nationally representative sample of 2,537 U.S. adults” how acceptable five different kinds of genetic engineering in animals would be. The list included preventing mosquitos from spreading diseases by limiting their ability to reproduce, using animals to grow organs for human transplantation, and making aquarium fish glow. Some of these genetic modifications have already been made in laboratories, while others are still being studied.
The researchers also asked the respondents about how much or little they felt they knew about science, how religious they were or were not, and, if they objected to any of these applications, why they did. The study report quotes representative answers.
The responses, as you’d expect, varied widely. Overall, men were more supportive of each of these technologies than women, the more scientifically literate were more supportive than those who were less, the less religious were more supportive than the more religious, and whites were more supportive than non-whites.
Support varied between the technologies too. Limiting mosquito reproduction to block the spread of diseases like Zika, dengue, and others got the most support, 70% overall. Animal-grown human organs came in second at 57%. Only these two got overall majority support. Glow-in-the-dark aquarium fish got the least support, only 21%.
The reasons scientists have focused on pigs include that the animals are the right size to grow human-sized organs, they’ve been well studied for many years, and they don’t take very long to grow to a size and maturity that the organ(s) could be harvested. Scientists’ goals are to genetically modify the pig embryos so the organs would be either fully human or compatible enough that the risks associated with transplantation would be similar to those from human-to-human transplants. Animal-grown organs could also, in theory, relieve today’s ongoing shortage of human donors for many organs.
Of the 293 survey respondents who opposed this technology, their reasons included suffering by or harm to the animals (21% of those 293), that it was against God or nature (18%), and that it could have negative effects on human health (16%), among others.
What Would You Do?
If you needed a new kidney, liver, or heart, say, and you could receive one that had been grown in a pig, what would you do? Should this research even continue?
I’m don’t know what I might do. There are still many technical and ethical issues to be fully addressed, and not everyone will be satisfied with the answers scientists, ethicists, and others settle on. We should remember, too, that scientists in other countries might come to different conclusions, depending on their cultural values. Could that lead to a “transplantation tourism” industry, where people from countries that prohibit or restrict such transplants would travel to countries where it was legal or easier to get? It’s good to be having these discussions now, however, and they are under way.
So what do you think you would do? Please put your thoughts in the reply box below.