Thousands of people die each year because there are simply not enough organs donated to satisfy the demand. In 2016, around 34,000 organ transplants took place in the United States, but there were nearly 117,000 people on the waiting lists. Rather than address this problem on the human end, some scientists approached it in a different way. Scientists have been working on how to transplant organs from animals into humans, but they ran into one big roadblock: viruses. Pigs, one of the species being studied for organ transplants, often carry viruses that would make organ transplants from pigs to humans impossible. Scientists, however, have been able to edit the genes of piglets so that they are cleansed of retroviruses, something that is necessary if pig organs are ever going to be used for humans.
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With this new discovery, scientists believe it may be “possible one day to transplant livers, hearts and other organs from pigs into humans, a hope that all experts had all but given up” (Gina Kolata, New York Times). This new method takes advantage of gene editing and cloning, both of which are recent advancements in the field of biology. Pig organs could work especially well because they are the right size and have similar functions. Although it seems promising, it is difficult to predict what problems may arise further down the road. While the leader of the experiments believes that the first transplants from pigs to humans could take place within two years, other scientists believe that more years will pass before scientists are confident enough in the safety of pig organs to allow widespread transplants into humans.
A separate issue with animal organ transplants is that of animal rights. Some people are opposed to the idea of using pigs as organ factories, especially since 100 million pigs are already killed every year in the United States for food. Many scientists believe that if the pigs are killed humanely and are used to save lives, then doing so is not unethical, but there will probably always be those who disagree with this view.
Animal transplants into humans would not be a completely new concept. Doctors already use heart valves from pigs in human patients, and this is a fairly common procedure. While there is still a lot of work to be done if pig organs will be successfully used in human transplants, eliminating the virus problem was a key step forward. If pig organs do become fully viable, they will be able to prevent thousands of deaths, a goal that is definitely worth pursuing.