In 2017, Harvard University geneticist George Church predicted that gene-edited pig organs would be transplanted into humans within two years. Well, it’s 2019. Is it time to stop putting pork in baked beans and start putting it in human bein’s? (Sorry, but you knew it was coming.)
“I was wrong.”
When life gives you lemons, or pesky regulations that stop you from testing gene-edited pig organs on humans, you make lemonade by putting the pig organs in the next best thing to humans. No, not zombies … although that’s a great idea for a movie. George Church and his eGenesis company has convinced a major US hospital to allow them to transplant gene-edited pig organs into monkeys. You know the next question: What could possibly go wrong?
“What we’re doing is a necessary step. We’d be hard pressed to put a modified organ into a human until it’s been tested in a large animal.”
Dr. James Markmann, the chief of transplant surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, is working with eGenesis to prove to skeptics that the shortage of human donor organs can be solved by using modified pig organs which are closer to human organs than those of any other animals. Close — but not close enough to light up a Cohiba Behike … yet. In fact, the only thing you may want to light up at the moment is a warning flare. In an interview in the MIT Technology Review, Markmann declines to identify which pig organs are being tested (heart, kidney and liver would be the most popular and useful) nor what kind of monkeys are receiving them. Baboons and chimps would be the obvious choices for their size but it’s difficult both physically and ethically to obtain them for medical experiments, which is why those plentiful, pesky and sometimes murderous Rhesus monkeys are probably the recipients.
On the other hand, there’s millions of pigs and the non-organ parts won’t go to waste, but animal rights groups are fighting for them as well – Markmann avoids conflicts by refering to both donors and recipients as merely “large animals.” Pigs are also becoming more controversial as other researchers believe it’s better to perform the gene edits (the purpose is to eliminate recipient rejection) in such a way that they remove the rejection gene from most of the pig’s organs – creating a veritable buffet of transplantable offal. Markmann prefers to edit one organ at a time and points out that pig hearts have survived in baboons for up to two years. Is it time to test them on humans? What could possibly go wrong?
“We’ve got a Chevy. We may even have a BMW now. Do we wait for a Ferrari? There’s a point where you just want to give it a test drive.”
By far, the best quote on the subject comes from Devin Eckhoff, director of the medical school transplantation division at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who seems to liken his own field to auto mechanics and organ transplants to putting a big new Ford engine in an old Model T. As with so many other experiments that end up being plots for horror movies, what could possibly go wrong is that the marketing and accounting departments overrule research and development and make decisions based on fame, money and beating the competition.
Would the zombie idea be a better approach?