Scientists are Making Human-Animal Hybrids: Breeding Pigs for Human Heart Transplants

Bioethics   |   Micaiah Bilger   |   Feb 21, 2022   |   9:47PM   |   Washington, DC

As soon as 2025, humans who need new hearts could receive donor organs from genetically modified pigs.

The Guardian reports scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany are working on cloning and breeding pigs for the purpose of growing hearts for human transplants, or xenotransplants.

University scientist Eckhard Wolf said they hope to have the animals ready for human transplant trials by 2025. This year, Wolf said they plan to conduct their first trials with baboons.

The organs would be used for people who suffer from heart failure or other problems in which a transplant would be the only means of saving their life, according to the report.

Similar experiments are happening in the United States. In January, a University of Maryland Medicine team conducted what is believed to be the first successful human heart transplant from a pig. The Guardian reports, the recipient, a terminally ill man, “is responding well though risks of infection, organ rejection or high blood pressure remain.”

Other news outlets also have reported about organ transplant research with human-animal hybrids in recent years.

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In 2017, National Geographic reported about an experiment involved pig embryos injected with human cells. Researchers at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California said they implanted the living pig-human embryos, or chimeras, in adult pigs’ wombs and allowed them to grow between three and four weeks. Later, the scientists said they removed the creatures, which died, and studied them.

“The ultimate goal is to grow functional and transplantable tissue or organs, but we are far from that,” lead researcher Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte said at the time.

Scientists at the University of California, Davis also are trying to use pigs as “biological incubators” to grow human organs, according to the report.

But the experimental technology is raising concerns among both animal and human rights advocates.

Bioethicist Wesley Smith has previously warned about experiments with human-animal hybrids and letting scientists police themselves, because they often throw ethics and a respect for human life out the window.

He wrote in 2013:

The real question is when are we going to enforce the regulations with sharp teeth? Do we need to criminalize these experiments to get scientists to stop? Because when we say, “ban ” certain kinds of experiments, we are pejoratively labeled as “anti science,” and that we should trust “the scientists” not to stray too far afield.

Talk is cheap. The truth is, I think many scientists oppose any permanent and meaningful restraints–on themselves and each other. If I am right, society will have to forcefully take matters into its own hands.