Xenotransplantation is one of the most controversial topics in the field of medicine and surgery today. Read all about xenotransplantation pros and cons in the following article and get an idea of what the bigger picture looks like.
Before we begin discussing the pros and cons, let’s first understand the subject matter itself. What is xenotransplantation? Although this voluminous term may intimidate you into speculating about the complexity of its nature, xenotransplantation is actually such a phenomenon about which most of you must have heard some time or the other.
Remember reading those special newspaper columns and editorial sections about organ transplant between different species? Remember those news items about using tissues from pigs and cows for medical grafting in humans? Well, those are some instances that can be included within the broad premises of xenotransplantation. To put it straight and simple, xenotransplantation is the medical procedure wherein interspecies transplantation of biological elements such as tissues and organs takes place.
This phenomenon holds especially significant possibilities for treating human conditions requiring grafts and transplants where the required organs or tissues from human donors cannot be procured at the right time. Usually, such transplant is required in cases of the end stage of a disease that eventually results in organ failure. Now that the premises of xenotransplantation are clear, let’s proceed to take a quick look at the various xenotransplantation pros and cons that, aside from arguments regarding ethics, contribute towards all this controversy that surrounds this issue.
The Upsides and Downsides of Xenotransplantation
Like every new idea or possibility ever conceived throughout the history of humanity, the issue of xenophobia is not without controversy. The reasons behind all this controversy are numerous and diverse, from difference of medical perspectives to religious and cultural beliefs to ethics of using animal organs in humans to possibility of exploitation of animals to act as organ suppliers.
Keeping aside all arguments, whether in favor or against, having to do with religion and ethics aside, let’s focus on the practical aspects of xenotransplantation to arrive at a conclusion on whether or not this could be a pragmatic solution to the issues of organ and tissue culture, transplant and grafting.
- If statistics are to be trusted, as much as 60% of patients suffering organ degeneration and failure die while waiting for the replacement organs to arrive, owing to a shortage of availability of transplantable organs from human donors. Even when a human donor is readily available, it is not necessary that the organ donor and recipient be located in close geographical proximity. The transportation time often turns the patient’s condition even more critical, especially in case of end stage organ failure where each minute’s delay can cost the patient his/her life. In such cases, opting for xenotransplantation can be a quicker alternative as this gives the health care professionals more options within close proximity and they can go ahead with the surgery without wasting time.
- Unlike blood, which may be voluntarily donated by living donors, organs such as liver, kidneys, eyes and heart are mostly procured from donors who are no longer alive. This creates a sort of medical double coincidence of wants where the number of living recipients must equal the number of dead donors at a given time in order for a transplant to be effective. Then too, there are other dynamics such as cost, transportation, storage and time that play their respective roles in determining the success of a transplant even when an organ is readily available. Xenotransplantation can address this issue successfully to a great extent.
- The first and most significant drawback of the xenotransplantation theory is the issue of immune rejection. You must be somewhat aware of the fact that the human body has been known to reject organ transplants procured from human donors. You see, tissues of all creatures have genetic markers and it is these markers that the immune system depends on for deciding whether the tissue or organ belongs to its own body or is of a foreign origin. Different species, no matter how closely related, have different genetic codes (that’s what makes species different from each other, even if slightly!) and the greater the difference between the species, the greater the discrepancy between both their genetic markers. Now, our immune systems are smarter than the FBI and Interpol and they can easily pick up the marker differences between the genetic code of the host human body and the genetic code of tissues procured from another human donor. So, what makes you think it won’t catch your bluff when you try and introduce the tissues of another species into your body? The result would be transplant rejection and an extremely severe immune response which might worsen the patient’s condition.
- The second greatest risk of xenotransplantation is the existence of latent viruses inside the donor animal’s tissues which can become active once it gets inside a human host post transplantation. Most of these viruses might not have had any major effects on the animal in question (this can be due to the donor species having developed immunity against it over years) but it can wreak havoc on the health of the human recipient as the human immune system may fall short of the defenses required to fight it. This could result into a viral epidemic of sorts akin to the AIDS phenomenon in African countries.
Judging by the above xenotransplantation pros and cons, it is clear that both sides of the coin require equal attention as the situation is not such where the pros weigh down the cons or vice versa. However, as far as the issue surrounding immune rejection based upon genetic markers is concerned, research and genetic engineering are under way of breeding mammals, pigs to be specific, that exhibit transgenic characteristics and have genetic markers that are very close to humans.
We can only wait and watch as humanity uses all its creative and intellectual resources to come up with such biotechnological breakthrough that takes care of the cons so that the pros can be optimized upon. As far as the ethics and religious arguments surrounding xenotransplantation are concerned, those are the subjects of discussion of another article, perhaps sometime down the line.