Scientists at the University of California successfully created a chimera embryo, part pig, part human, to attempt a pig to human transplant.
As the demand for organ transplants increases, scientists are developing a way to create human organs grown in pigs. Essentially, undertaking a pig organ transplant to a human, they need to create a chimera.
Unlike the chimera’s in mythology, such as the fire-breathing part lion, part snake, part goat creature described by Homer or the characters in popular children’s TV shows such as “Yu-Gi-Oh,” there are no supernatural powers involved.
What scientists hope to solve through the creation of a chimera?
Mostly – the problems with the shortage of organ implant donors, by breeding pigs with human organs that they can then harvest to save human lives.
Of course, this evokes many ethical dilemmas. For example, the US National Institutes of Health refused to endorse this research as there are still too many unknowns.
Meanwhile, the head of research into this chimera project, Reproductive biologist Professor Pablo Ross stresses that there is an extremely small possibility that the pig would develop the brain cells of a human. Nevertheless, this risk is too much for the Institute.
Dangers of a Pig Human Transplant
There is also a concern that pig viruses could be transferred post-transplant to patients. Similarly, there could develop serious complications. To enumerate, the human recipient would automatically reject the organs that contain blood vessels from the pig.
However, Harvard researchers believe that via gene-editing they could deactivate around 60 known retrovirus genes from the pig. But still, the blood vessel cells issue remains a concern.
There are also concerns from animal rights activists. Peter Stevenson from the organization “Compassion in World Farming” is worried that this will just be another way for animals to suffer at the hands of humans and that instead there should be better campaigns to encourage people to donate organs. He believes that it is not yet the last resort, and when it is, only then should it be explored.
Experiments creating chimeras are not new. In 2010 a rat-mouse chimera was created, when a mouse was genetically engineered to grow a rat’s pancreas.
In that same year, scientists developed a chimeric mouse with human liver cells
Their intention being to utilize it to seek a cure for human liver disease. But is this meddling with genetics going to lead us to wish we had learned from the warning lessons from the fiction novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau?”
Thus far, the Californian scientists who have undertaken this research only allowed the human-pig chimera embryo to live for 28 days. Such a short time enabled them to at least conduct an analysis of the developed tissues.
What the study showed was that had the embryo been allowed to be brought to term, it would have developed an entirely human pancreas.
To do that they utilized a gene-editing process called “Crispr.” This technique turned off the gene in the pig that would develop its own pancreas. Subsequently, they put in its place the human gene responsible for developing a human pancreas.
The researchers hope that by perfecting this technique, in the future they could develop human hearts, lungs, kidneys, livers and corneas to be harvested for life-saving transplants.
Professor George Church has led similar research to this in the past. He believes these experiments could lead to creating transplant organs superior to human organs derived from deceased donors. Church reasons that they would be healthier, cleaner and available on demand.
But of course, the ethics remain as a pertinent issue for many people
It brings up questions like what really is a human? What really is an animal? Ultimately, this is a controversy that could rage for some time to come.
What is your opinion about this? Feel free to share your thoughts and feelings in the comments below.
Image Credit: Chris Skitch via flickr.com