To solve the organ shortage, we need more awareness, not more animals

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As a scientist and researcher, I am deeply opposed to xenotransplantation – the Frankenscience of transplanting organs from one species to another – as everyone should be. Reports that animal experimenters at the University of Maryland–Baltimore have implanted a pig’s heart into a man are extremely disturbing. Animal-to-human transplants are nothing more than vanity projects that seek to grab sensational headlines, and they are fraught with danger.

First, the shortage of organ donations is largely a result of the lack of public education about the donation process and the lifesaving potential of every donor. Reluctance among family members to allow their loved one’s organs to be donated is another key hurdle. Instead of squandering time and resources trying to genetically manipulate animals’ body parts into functioning like human ones, we could invest in initiatives that increase awareness – such as public service announcements and donor drives – that would result in far more people choosing to donate their organs upon their passing. Many countries have also had success with simple policy changes such as mandated choice laws, which require adults to choose whether to donate their organs, or presumed consent, which assumes that everyone wants to be an organ donor unless otherwise stated.

And xenotransplantation is far riskier for the patient than a proven human-to-human transplant. The troubling history of these procedures reads like the script for a sci-fi horror flick. Pigs’ kidneys and hearts implanted in baboons, a baboon’s heart implanted in a human baby, a pig’s kidney attached to the outside of a brain-dead human on a ventilator, a pig’s lung and heart implanted in an economically disadvantaged Indian man – every one of these experiments involved extreme cruelty and suffering. And every one was a complete failure.

Then there are the risks to public health. Both the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have sounded the alarm about the potential of animal-to-human transplants to introduce infections across species barriers. Swine influenza and porcine endogenous retrovirus are just two viruses that have been identified in pigs that are transmissible to humans. We’re entering year three of a global pandemic. Have we learned nothing about the devastation that can result when viruses cross the species barrier?

Xenotransplantation is also unethical: The vast majority of us oppose cruelty to animals. Animals bred to be used in these futile experiments endure a lifetime of confinement, genetic manipulation, and painful surgeries before ultimately being killed – all without their consent.

Treating sentient animals like warehouses full of spare parts only reinforces the notion that humans should not be thinking about organ donation from animals – it only exacerbates the problem. Animals aren’t discount bins at the organ outlet mall. They are complex, intelligent individuals who experience pain, love, loneliness, fear, and joy just as we do. Pigs, for example, are highly social, playful animals who form close bonds, make nests, sun themselves, and often sleep nestled together in “pig piles”. They dream, can recognise their own names and learn “tricks” like sitting for a treat, and show empathy for others. They, too, love their families and want to live. Junk science experiments rob them and other sentient beings of their freedom, their body parts, and their very lives.

This issue doesn’t come down to a choice between saving the lives of animals or saving the lives of humans. A safe, proven, ethical solution to the organ shortage is right in front of us. Instead of focusing on pigs’ hearts, we need to focus on our own.

(Dr Ankita Pandey is a noted toxicology researcher and the science policy advisor to PETA India)

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