“We have to be frank about this: We are exploiting these pigs.” (Dr. David White, former director of research at Imutran in England)
“Generally speaking, our society and our government is at least giving the impression that it’s becoming more sensitive to the welfare needs of animals and we all hope that sensitivity and compassion will develop. But with xenotransplantation, it’s a sort of massive blow to that sense of progression. It’s a step into the Dark Ages. It may look really nice and scientific and clean, but in terms of what we’re actually doing to animals, it’s barbaric.” (Dr. Dan Lyons, expert on British animal research policy)
Xenotransplantation is the transfer of cells, tissues, or whole organs from one species to another. More specifically, animal parts harvested for the good of humanity. The technology is not, at present, practical. Xenozoonoses (infectious diseases transmitted to the recipient, perhaps an AIDS II), hyperacute rejection (the immune system attacking the new organ as foreign), and infections (the immunosuppressive drugs, designed to combat rejection, leave the body susceptible) are not so insignificant hurdles.
The first kidney xenografts (from chimps) were reported in 1963, and a year later the first heart (chimp again) was xenotransplanted. The longest cardiac success came in 1984 with Baby Fae, who received a baboon heart at infancy and survived for three weeks. Ironically, Time ran an essay by Charles Krauthammer in which he decried the exploitation of the baby (the surgeons, knowing it would fail, used her as a guinea pig), not the baboon. In 1984, the modern animal rights movement was in its nascent stage. There were protests, but the debate was largely over Baby Fae’s dignity and the biological integrity of the human race.
In the late 1990’s, Imutran (a subsidiary of Novartis, the pharmaceutical giant) conducted grisly experiments at the Huntingdon Life Sciences laboratories in England. The scientists grafted genetically-modified (to create a human-like organ) pig hearts into baboons and cynomolgus monkeys. The goal was twofold: first, a marketable xenograft for human use; and second, development of the critical immunosuppressants (hence, Novartis funding the research). Internal documents were leaked to the animal rights group Uncaged Campaigns in early 2000, and a report detailing the research (Imutran sued to block and lost) soon followed.
The 50 or so baboons were kidnapped in Africa, and the 400-600 monkeys were purchased from Asian breeders and transported to England in small metal cages. Most of the baboons had pig hearts transplanted into their necks and abdomens (i.e., not life-supporting). The majority of the monkeys had their own kidneys removed and replaced with one pig kidney (they were life-supporting but abnormally positioned). All of the animals died. The documents revealed collusion between the British government and Imutran to suppress troublesome details. These descriptions of post-surgery come directly from the researchers’ logs:
quiet and huddled…body and head tremors…large vomit in cage…exhibits discomfort when moving…no use of right arm…right arm badly swollen and bruised…skin broken and oozing blood…collapsed on cage floor…very laboured breathing…extreme difficulty trying to walk…holding neck…animal picking at transplant site…keeps holding area where transplanted heart is…yellow fluid seeping from site…animal showing obvious discomfort…uncoordinated limb spasms…retching and salivating…bloody discharge from penis…observed shivering…periodic severe tremors…extreme difficulty breathing, vocalising…died prior to sacrifice…sacrificed for humane reasons
While some died from technical failures within 24 hours, most lingered for 13-99 days before succumbing to infection, rejection, or toxicity. Imutran’s research was discontinued (and moved to the U.S.) largely as a result of Uncaged’s disclosure. In an interview with Frontline, Dan Lyons said: “One of the most unfortunate animals had a piglet heart transplanted into his neck. …for several days he was holding the heart. It was swollen. It was seeping blood, it was seeping pus… He suffered from body tremors, vomiting, diarrhea. And the animal just sat there. I think living hell is really the only sort of real way you can get close to describing what it must be like to have been that animal in that situation.”
In order to produce workable xenografts, the above cited experiments are necessary. Armed with that knowledge, we must ask: How much suffering and destruction is acceptable in the pursuit of medical progress? For me, the answer is simple. The exploitation of the weak and the voiceless is always immoral, no matter the species. We do not harvest the organs of small children or the mentally enfeebled (i.e., those intellectually comparable to apes and pigs) because they are us. Speciesism defined. Other sentient beings are not resources to be carved and plucked. Support mechanical devices, become an organ donor, and bequeath your body to education. That is the least we can do.