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Xenotransplantation: Is it a Good Alternative to Human Organ Donation?

Updated on June 15, 2018
Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie has two bachelor's degrees, one in science and the other in English. She is working on her master's degree.

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Xenotransplantation, the practice of transplanting animal organs and tissues into human patients, has a rather uninspiring history.

Even Rebecca D. Williams, a writer with a positive outlook on the future of animal-to-human organ transplants, acknowledges that the procedure had less than promising beginnings. She describes the very first animal organ transplant to a human, conducted by French surgeon Mathieu Jaboulay in 1906. He provided one woman with a pig’s kidney and another with a goat’s liver. Both died.

However, Williams believes that improvements in modern medicine will overcome the problems of the past. She gives a success rate for human organ transplants: “more than 10,000 Americans received kidney transplants in 1995, with a three-year life expectancy of more than 85 percent” (Hurley J., Roleff T. 62) and sees no reason why xenotransplantation will not become just as successful.

Further, she states that xenotransplantation is necessary and possibly even superior to human organ transplants because organs from animals are plentiful, whereas human organs cannot meet transplant demands.

This is a fundamentally flawed theory for many reasons. First and foremost, there is no convincing evidence that surgeries using animal organs will be anywhere near as successful as those performed using human ones. Her reasoning, that “surgeons have made great strides in perfecting transplant techniques” and that they will therefore soon be able to master xenotransplants is questionable at best.

Williams herself describes nine surgeries performed from 1964 to 1992 with baboon kidneys, hearts, and livers that proved fatal within weeks for every patient involved (62). The last of these surgeries done in 1992 were performed only three years before the 10,000 highly successful human organ based surgeries cited earlier, and with profoundly less successful results. Assuming surgeons used similar transplantation techniques in all cases, there is clearly much more that needs to be learned to make surgery using alternative organs successful, and no guarantee that this will ever be accomplished.

Williams tries to attribute the deaths of those who received baboon organs to infections “common to patients on immunosuppressive drugs” (62). However, if this were true, why did the 10,000 Americans given these same drugs for their human transplants have an 85 percent chance of living for 3 years while those with baboon organs showed a zero percent chance of surviving more than mere weeks?

The only animal organ success story that is brought up by Williams took place when two individuals received transplants of pig livers. One survived long enough to later receive a human organ. The other died.

This is still only a fifty percent success rate, and it was only a partial success at best, as it was a very temporary procedure. In contrast to every animal organ based study mentioned, not only does human based surgery have a low risk of death, it has also been proven to successfully prolong individuals' lives. It has yet to be proven that xenotransplantation can do either. The most that has been shown is that sometimes it is not fatal, which is far from impressive.

The animal organ transplantation process has a whole lot more research that is needed before it can prove beneficial. And even more time will be needed before it can effectively combat the problem of organ shortages. Especially because, as previously mentioned, in the successful operation where the patient received a pig’s liver and survived, surgeons ended up providing that same patient with a human organ later on. This hardly proves that xenotransplants will decrease the demand for organs, when the only successful operation require twice the normal organ amount.

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Some believe that Williams was wrong about xenotransplantation having the potential to be beneficial when she wrote her article in 1996, and some believe that she remains incorrect today.

Additional experiments with humans have been very few, and therefore progress has been limited. Even now, seventeen years later, xenotransplantation remains an unpracticed procedure far from providing any significant supply of organs.

Part of the problem is that the FDA has yet to approve any whole animal organ transplants. For this reason, some argue that animal experimentation in this area has been a waste of time. Of these, a few go on to state that that organ shortages could have be fixed long ago, and in much safer and cost effective ways.

For example, John F. McArdle writes the following: “there is no shortage of human organs for possible use in clinical transplantation” (81). Instead, he finds the problems are that not enough donors exist and that the system for recipient selection is flawed. McArdle argues how “it is a sad commentary on our society that we routinely burn or bury more than enough viable organs to meet legitimate needs” (81). If more effort was put into getting individuals to sign up to be donors instead of into animal based research, the increase in human organs would make the research unnecessary.

McArdle claims that other countries have done this with success. He suggests that maybe why this approach is not being taken in the United States is that research is not being completed solely for the benefit of mankind. Instead, it is seen as a potential money making industry and is pursued in the interest of profit.

He makes the following calculations: “100,000 patients a year at a cost of thousands of dollars for each animal organ used creat[es] a new multi-billion-dollar animal exploitation industry” (81). This is excluding the additional billions of dollars earned by the medical professionals and researchers. Therefore, motivation to find alternative solutions, even if they would prove ultimately much safer to patients, is very small for several individuals.

Two sides to this argument still exist. Some approve of the practice of animal organ transplantation and see it as a great way to reduce the lengthy waiting process often required by transplant patients.

On the other hand, others see the wait for xenotransplantation to be perfected, let alone approved, as needlessly lengthy as well. Further, they believe it may even be altogether unnecessary if more attention was given to alternative means of boosting the available organ supply.

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    • Schatzie Speaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Pilar Floyd 

      5 years ago

      Hi Sanxuary,

      I agree with you that xenotransplantation has failed and will most likely continue to fail without severe consequences (and even if it were successful we would have to worry about inter-species disease transmission at the very least). Though, there are some times when a comparison between animal and human may be helpful for the sake of increasing our understanding of how things work.......I believe huamans and pigs are supposed to have extremely similar digestive systems, for example...but it should never be forgotten that similar is not the same as identical, or compatible.

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      Sanxuary 

      5 years ago

      Its been a complete failure so far and will continue to fail with out radical and horrible side effects being implemented. Its a false belief that humans and all species have anything in common with one another based on things that look similar but are far more different and complicated then they think.

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