Headlines are awash with news of researchers having transplanted a pig kidney into a human for the first time without triggering an immune response, but is this the medical breakthrough it’s cracked up to be?
There’s no denying the backlog of patients in need of organ transplants, which leaves hundreds of thousands of Americans waiting desperately for lifesaving surgeries. To solve this problem, researchers have been trying for decades to use animal organs as transplants in a process called xenotransplantation. But there are major medical and societal risks involved with xenotransplantation, including immunosuppression, immune rejection, and infection. In a time where pandemics loom large, these risks aren’t worth taking.
In an attempt to work around these issues, researchers have begun genetically modifying organ donor animals. But it is unclear when, if ever, this strategy will be available to patients in need. In the case of the pig kidney, researchers merely attached the organ externally and only for a few days. This is a far cry from transplanting a kidney and demonstrating that it successfully cured kidney failure in a patient, long-term and with no complications.
Earlier this year, the National Kidney Foundation released a Roadmap for Innovation to Advance Transplant Access and Outcomes, which laid out a comprehensive set of recommendations to improve human organ donor programs, including expanding living donation, improving waitlist management and transplant readiness, and maximizing the use of available deceased donor organs. Advances in tissue preservation extend the viability of donor organs and increase the odds of these organs reaching patients in need.
Just as important as treatment for any disease, though, is prevention. According to the US Renal Data System, 65% of cases of end-stage renal disease are due to hypertension and diabetes, both of which can be prevented or reversed through lifestyle changes like a plant-based diet, maintaining a healthy weight, staying active, and not smoking.
The science behind xenotransplantation is not without ethical concerns either. The vision of animal “organ factories” bred only to produce organs should disturb everyone. In addition, there is a hidden opportunity cost when resources are funneled toward genetically modified animal organs instead of toward more reliable options, such as strengthening human organ donor programs and improving preventive health care.
Solutions to the organ shortage that don’t involve animals exist. Instead of bending over backwards trying to make xenotransplantation work, funding agencies and health technology companies should focus their efforts on more ethical and effective strategies. By investing in human organ donor programs, organ donation preservation technologies, and preventive health care and lifestyle interventions, there will be no need to harvest organs from animals.