Cloned pig organs could be used for human transplants

Travis Whittington

As the number of patients on transplant waiting lists increases daily, genetic researchers say they may have found a way to use pigs as human-organ donors. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), more than 58,000 people in the United States are on waiting lists for organ transplants. Nearly 40,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant. More than 4,000 patients are in need of a heart transplant. PPL Therapeutics, the firm that helped create the world’s first cloned sheep, have devised what they said might be a solution to the organ donor shortage. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, PPL has developed cultured pigs with internal organs that may be compatible with human beings. “The point of this research was to get our human transplantation research underway,” said April D’Arcy, public relations executive for PPL. “The biggest obstacle was dealing with the slightly more complicated reproductive process of the pig.” D’Arcy said she believes PPL would be able to produce pigs with compatible organs through the process of gene targeting. Jack Girton, associate professor of zoology and genetics, said gene targeting is the ability to specifically change a single gene. “With gene targeting, the scientists believe they come up with the process to remove cell surface molecules from the pig organs that would normally cause a human body to reject a transplanted pig organ,” he said. Girton said pig organs are the right size to support a human being. “Imagine the possibilities this research could produce. People who needed hearts, livers or kidneys would be able to receive them immediately without going on waiting lists,” he said. Before the new technology is embraced, moral and ethical issues must be settled, said Gary Comstock, professor of philosophy and religious studies. “We ignore the fact that pigs can feel pain, pleasure and that they have the ability to plan lives,” said Comstock, coordinator of the ISU bioethics program. “Our current food system does not recognize the true moral standing of the food animal.” While the debate over the moral issues continues, D’Arcy said the actual implementation of the technology is still in the distant future. “The possibility of people actually receiving pig tissue transplants is a long way off,” she said. “[PPL] would have to go through intense clinical trials for this technology to be accepted.”