March 5, 2024

Is it ethical to grow human organs in pigs?

Four ethicists consider the ethics of growing chimerical organs.

Recent experiments with growing chimerical organs in animals have delivered favourable results. Japanese researchers recently managed to grow different nascent rat organs in mice using pluripotent stem cells. Researchers believe it could soon be used to grow human organs. 

Amidst the enthusiasm of the scientific community, four bioethicsts from the Universities of Maastricht and Basel have explored the bioethical complexities of the matter. In a Journal of Medical Ethics article released this week, they consider whether the process is comparable to the creation of complete human/non-human chimeras.  There has been significant moral debate over the latter, and similar arguments could be used against the former. As the authors state,

“Injecting human PSCs into animal embryos could theoretically risk the resulting animal itself developing human physical or mental features such as human limb development or neuronal development.”

Ultimately, they claim, such concerns are unfounded. There is a morally relevant difference between a mere organ and a chimera that has “human neuronal (or reproductive)” capacities: 

“In the absence of any adverse consequences, objections based on human dignity are deprived of most of their force.”

There are also attendant concerns about the possibility of zoonosis, the interspecific transmission of viral or bacterial disease. Whilst certain aspects of the proposed procedure minimise this risk, there is nevertheless still some risk. 

“A deadly zoonosis could theoretically kill millions of people, and one might question whether the benefits of creating a new source of organs is worth outweighing the potential harms flowing from even a small risk of zoonosis.”

In their conclusion, the authors assert: “More research is required in order to clarify several uncertainties about viability and safety, and several concerns remain regarding the human features problem, animal welfare and human dignity.”

The overall tenor of the article is nevertheless quite positive. As Dr. David Shaw stated in a recent blog post, “While this source of organs is not entirely without risks, we believe that they are worth taking.”

Is it ethical to grow human organs in pigs?
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
genetic engineering
organ transplants