Pigs to overtake the healthcare industry

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about pigs taking over the healthcare industry. Ok, not literally. Companies such as eGenesis have used CRISPR’s gene-editing technology to modify and grow pig organs to be used as organ donations. In a complicated process, scientists incubate the cells in ovary egg cells from pigs in a slaughterhouse to create organs usable by humans. 

Despite their efforts, there are still many steps ahead, such as other identified toxic genes, but this marked the start of a new era in medicine. Along with pigs’ roles in improving organ availability, disease and health predictors present in the animals are also being researched. A pig’s genes could be altered to closely match your own, and they could serve as your personal organ donor.

You may ask “why pigs specifically?” Although lab rats and guinea pigs are great, they are small and have small organs. Recently, scientists have been turning to pigs to model progressions of Alzheimer’s disease and cystic fibrosis. Pigs can also be used to model progressions of rare genetic diseases, such as neurofibromatosis, which can manifest in siblings who have the same genetic mutation but have  different symptoms. Charles Konsitzke, an associate director for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Biotechnology Center, had a son with this disease and began breeding pigs with the mutation alongside fellow researcher, Dhanansayan Shanmuganayagam, in order to model the disease’s development within a host. According to Shanmuganayagam, the pigs exhibited a variety of possible symptoms quickly and consistently, which was easier to see because the pigs weren’t on medications, unlike people with the condition. 

Funding poses an issue to the project. According to Shanmuganayaga, breeding and modifying only one of these pigs can run as much as $250,000. Pig transplants were finally proven effective when a pig heart implanted into a “brain-dead” person beat for 72 hours straight.

Unfortunately, there is a growing need for organ substitutes. According to the US Health Resources and Services Administration, about 106,000 Americans are now on the organ transplant waiting list. Yet, only 38,000 organ transplants on average have been carried out over the past five years, leaving tens of thousands of patients with failing kidneys or cardiomyopathy and others who are dying while waiting for a new heart or liver. 

Then comes the question of the longevity of the animal being used for cross comparison to predict the illness. 

“If you’re thinking about the potential for the pig to sort of be along for the ride of the disease, to potentially live for decades with this condition as you’re hoping that these children will too, and trying to test interventions, you’re talking about significant amounts of resources. Who’s going to pay for it? Who can afford this? And these are questions that come up when regulators are assessing whether to approve a drug,” said commentator Danny Lewis in a Wall Street Journal podcast, “The Future of Everything.”

There are still some ethical questions to be raised, though. Nita Farahany, professor of law and philosophy at Duke University, studies the ethics of emerging technologies and raises an interesting idea: “You’re starting to blur the line, essentially, in both directions, both because you make the animals more like humans, and you make the humans more like non-human animals, by taking on those organs and changing the kind of characteristics of what it means to be human.” 

For most, however, saving a life triumphs over background ethical propositions. Shanmuganayagam still tries to maintain a humane environment for the pigs, which he named Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose, by providing companion pigs and playtime with the researchers.

There is still a lot of work to be done to get FDA approval in pig transplanting. In addition to the above, what happens if  xenotransplantation does get approved? Pigs are pretty intelligent animals; will they take revenge? Will we have the ending of the Animal Farm situation on our hands? I’m just joking, this probably will never happen…or will it?

Edited by Eleanor Knight