POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Xenografting – Are We to be Your Uncle’s Monkey?

The following is an exerpt from a paper I wrote a few years back... -------------------------------- The process of xenografting, the transplanting of animal organs into human beings, is being researched as a possibility to solve the shortage of organs. With the exception of the use of animal valves in hearts surgeries or ligaments in orthopedic applications, Xenografts have been done experimentally with little or no success, and have yet to enter into clinical trials with human beings.[1] The ethical debate around this possible procedure has centered almost exclusively on a utilitarian fear that the result of such a transplants could possibly introduce xenozoonoses (animal diseases) into human populations.[2] Some ethicists who subscribe to a materialist philosophy have argued against xenografting as a type of “speciesism”, which would give higher moral status to humans over animals,[3] but a Christian response does not suffer from this complication. Before looking at the ethics of xenotransplants, a closer look at the procedure is warranted. There are two possible future frontiers for this science: 1) placing human organs, grown in animals, into humans and 2) placing animal organs into human beings. The concerns and hurdles for both areas of this science deal with the acute rejection of organs by the human recipient and fear of introducing unknown pathogens into the human population. First, the human body rejects foreign subjects with a T-cell invasion that must be suppressed in any transplant. Immunosuppressive drugs like cyclosporine can be used to do this with human organ transplants, but with animal organs there is a different and more acute immune response. There are proteins in our body, serving in what is called the complement system, that seek out anything foreign and mark it for demolition. Human tissues have so called “shield proteins” which guard human tissue from this response, but animal organs would face a devastating result.[4] There is currently promising research underway to genetically engineer transgenic animals whose organs would not be susceptible to this acute rejection.[5] Secondly, the public health risk of releasing xenozoonoses into the population is a very serious matter. This risk could be managed through the control of the donor animal populations and through thorough screening tests.[6] If the acute rejection is managed and the possibility of introducing xenozoonoses minimized, then xenografting presents a possible source of organs to solve the current problem of scarcity. The remaining question then for consideration is: “Is it ethical?" Ethical Considerations

In a Christian ethic, the ends do not justify the means; the means must justify themselves. It is clear that there is a great need for organs for transplants patients, but they should not be acquired by any means necessary. Even if the medical science of xenografting were to achieve some success in the future, the question of whether it should be done must be evaluated. In considering xenografting there are three ethical question to be evaluated: 1) Is it ethical to kill animals to harvest their organs for human beings? 2) Is it ethical to place human parts, grown in animals, into humans? 3) Is it ethical to place animal parts in humans?

First, as noted earlier, the created world, including plant and animal life, are part of God’s creation available for people to use for their good. This would mean the practice of raising animals for human use, whether for food or medicinal purposes, is clearly acceptable from Scripture. Secondly, the issue of placing human organs grown in animals into human beings is a just slightly more complex issue than human organ transplants. If animals could be engineered to grow human organs in their bodies, if the immune responses of the person could be managed effectively, and if the process could be done without introducing dangerous non-human pathogens into the human population then the procedure would have little difference with human cadaver allotransplantation which is ethically acceptable.[7] Finally, and perhaps most exotic, is the consideration of transplantation of animal organs into human beings. Human beings and animals share a common make up and material; each is made from dust (Genesis 2:7), or in modern scientific terms, organized matter encoded with specified DNA. One thing that differentiates human beings from animals is that he has an immaterial mind/soul that plays out in his body; this combination of body and soul bears the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Human beings incorporate animals into our bodies all the time through medicines, meats, and other food products. People already use other parts of nature in their bodies through the use of rubber, plastics, and surgical metals. If the procedure could be done safely, it would show Christian beneficence to humanity by saving and prolonging lives. The arguments in support of human cadaver allotransplantation should also apply to xenotransplantation. It should always involve the informed consent of the patient without direct or indirect coercion from the medical research community and it should not attempt to violate the mortality principle in being applied to the very old and dying. If these principles were observed then xenografting could be an excellent way to prolong the life of human persons. Common Objections

A few common objections might be made from a Christian perspective. Some of them are as follows: 1) God has clearly stated than man and beast are different and has even given man a certain type of body that is different from animals (1 Corinthians 15:39,40); 2) The body is to be regarded as holy – rejecting a Gnostic view of the flesh,[8] it should be honored as sacred and not “monkied” around with; 3) Human reduction to mere animals is usually associated with this research so it should be avoided.

First of all, God did say that we have different bodies than animals, but the passage in 1 Corinthians just says that there is a difference between men and animals. It does not say their parts should not be interchanged; this is a conclusion that does not follow from this passage. Second, in response to us “monkeying” around with the body, Mark Foreman professor of Bioethics at Liberty University had this response to the objection:

The problem here is how far do you want to pursue this. Doctors and researchers "monkey" around with the body all the time. That is how medical advances occur. Remember that every medical procedure and treatment at one time was experimental. At one time aspirin was new and considered "monkeying" around with the body. People have always been accusing doctors and researchers of playing God - but if they had not pursued experimental procedures, then medicine would never have advanced. The question is what is legitimate and ethical and what is "monkeying" around. This objection begs this question and doesn't address it.[9]

Finally, although a reduction of human beings to mere animals is common with such research, this has more to do with a researcher’s materialistic worldview than the research itself. A reduction is happening at times, but it does not necessarily follow. In fact one can argue the opposite - that by using animals in this manner to benefit humans we are recognizing that there is a clear difference, with human beings having more value. We would be troubled if we killed humans to harvest organs for animals, so we are thus affirming human dignity above a mere animal in researching xenotransplantation.[10]

[1] Robert E. Michler, “Xenotransplantation: Risks, Clinical Potential, and Future Prospects” Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2, no 1 (January-March 1996), 67.

[2] Arthur Caplan, Am I My Brother's Keeper? The Ethical Frontiers of Miomedicine (Bloomington, Indian Univ Press, 1997) 101.

[3] Peter Singer, “Against X Engrafting” Transplantation Proceedings 24, Issue 2: 718-22.

[4] Walter Truett Anderson, Evolution isn’t what it used to be: The Augmented Animal and the Whole Wired World (New York: NY, W.H. Freeman and Company, 1996), 84.

[5] PPL THERAPEUTICS PLC Press Release PPL Produces World’s First Transgenic Cloned Pigs April 11th 2001. [press release] available from http://www.ppl-therapeutics.com/html/cfml/index_fullstory.cfm?StoryID=37; Internet; accessed June 20th, 2001. PPL Therapeutics is the company that cloned Dolly the sheep. It is one of the world's leading companies in the application of transgenic technology to the production of therapeutic and nutraceutical proteins. Ironically, most of PPL’s research into xenografting using transgenic pigs is being conducted in the author’s former hometown of Blacksburg VA.

[6] Robert Michler, Xenotransplantation: Risks, Clincal Potential, and Future Prospects" Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2, no 1 (January-March 1996) 65.

[7] Norman Geisler, Christian Ethics, Options and Issues (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1989) 184,185

[8] The Gnostic held to a radical form of body/spirit dualism in which all flesh was deemed to be evil and all that was good reflected the spiritual dimension of life.

[9] Personal Correspondence June 21st, 2001.

[10] This is precisely Peter Singer’s objection to the procedure. A radical view of animal/human equality will object to the research and the practice of xenografting.