Not a pig in a poke
Genetic engineering could overcome rejection problems
April 28, 1997
Web posted at: 6:30 p.m. EDT (2230 GMT)
From Medical Correspondent Andrew Holtz
DURHAM, North Carolina (CNN) -- There's no question that organ transplants can save lives. The problem has always been that there are not enough organs to save every patient who needs one.
But medical science may have come up with a solution -- xenotransplants, which involve taking organs from animals and giving them to people.
The few patients who have received animal transplants in the past have only lived a few weeks because anti-rejection drugs couldn't stop their immune systems from attacking the organs. But researchers at Duke University believe genetic engineering technology now being developed may change that.
In Duke's labs, and at other labs in the United States and Britain, pigs are being genetically altered before birth so that their organs will masquerade as human organs if transplanted.
The idea, says Duke's Dr. Jeffrey Platt, is to overcome the "foreignness" of animal organs and tissues that lead humans to reject them. If that hurdle can be cleared, there could someday be enough organs to save people who now perish while waiting for transplants.
"Patients are dying every day, thousands of patients every year, and it's that question which we are hastening to answer," Platt said.
Animal transplants do raise questions
But researchers will also have to answer questions about whether such transplants could create new problems, such as, could they be transplanting a porcine disease to the organ recipient that could then be spread to others?
Advocates point out that the pigs they intend to use are raised in protected environments. And because people already have extensive contacts with pigs, any diseases that could cross over probably already have, the experts say.
Researchers are confident they can eventually overcome technical hurdles. But a bigger obstacle to widespread use of animal organs may be public reluctance. After all, the idea of transplanting a heart from a pig to a person tends to grab people in ways that go beyond mere science.
Even some patients who have been waiting for a lifesaving transplant say they aren't particularly eager to have an animal organ working inside them. But then, as one patient put it, "given the chance to live and see my grandchildren grow up, I would take it."
Platt and other researchers say they have no doubt that animal organs will someday save human lives. They say they're now at the dress rehearsal stage, with curtain ready to rise on a new era in organ transplants.
Related sites:Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.
© 1997 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.