There are two ways at looking at using animals to improve medical treatments for people. One is that we should do so, using them in experiments to find and test new medicines; the other is to not do so because they are sentient beings that should not be made to suffer.
Animals, notably mice, are used in laboratories conducting research into multiple sclerosis. And clinical trials involving humans do not take place until after successful trials using mice. If we are willing to benefit from that, can we oppose the use of animals for other medical purposes like growing human organs for transplant?
Yes, you did read that correctly.
Scientists in the USA are now trying to do just that! Concerned with the lack of organs available for transplant, they are attempting to grow a human pancreas inside a pig. If successful, this controversial research could enable the harvesting of human organs for transplant patients.
A team from the University of California has found a way that allows them to inject human stem cells into the pig embryos. Researchers hope the resulting foetus will grow a pancreas made almost entirely of human cells – although in the current trials the pregnancies will be terminated after just 28 days. This is because, the US has imposed a funding limit owing to concerns that the human cells might migrate to developing the foetal pig’s brain, making the animal more human.
Reproductive biologist Professor Pablo Ross, who is leading the research, said: “Our hope is that this pig embryo will develop normally but the pancreas will be made almost exclusively out of human cells and could be compatible with a patient for transplantation.
“We think there is a very low potential for a human brain to grow.”
Sounds good? Well, not really. If Prof Ross is correct that there is a “very low potential for a human brain to grow”, then that potential certainly does exist. Now, to me, that seems to be a genuine cause of concern.
The idea behind using pigs is that they are thought to be an ideal biological incubator for growing human organs. Ultimately, they could potentially be used to create not just a pancreas, but hearts, livers, kidneys lungs and corneas. Prof Ross said transplanting such organs to human patients in need of transplants could be done without the need for immunosuppressive drugs which can carry significant side-effects.
Experts believe that the technique being developed in California is likely to be approved by the UK’s Home Office but, as you might expect, animal rights campaigners are questioning the use of animals to grow human organs.
Peter Stevenson, from Compassion in World Farming, said: “I’m nervous about opening up a new source of animal suffering. Let’s first get many more people to donate organs.”
What do you think? I’d love to hear your views.