Are Animal Organs the Solution to the Organ Shortage Crisis?

It’s no secret that the demand for human organs is far higher than the supply. The medical community has explored a few questionable ideas to solve the problem, including supporting changes to the definition of death and even temporarily reviving dead patients. One new approach involves testing the successfulness of modified pig organs in patients who have been declared brain dead. 

This year medical researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham released a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association stating that genetically modified pig kidneys were transplanted into a brain dead patient. The study showed that the modified kidneys performed life-sustaining functions for the brain dead patient for a full week. Doctors at NYU Langone Health did the same in July 2023. Although no study was released, Langone Health reported that the modified pig kidneys continued to function well after 32 days in a brain dead patient on a ventilator. Dr. Montgomery from Langone Health stated, “the pig kidney appears to replace all of the important tasks that the human kidney manages.

This process is called xenotransplantation, when organs, cells or tissue being transplanted originate from a species different from the organ recipient. In this case, pig organs are transplanted into humans. Scientists have now genetically modified pigs to grow human compatible organs which the human body will accept. Because the human immune system can detect foreign substances, the body would immediately reject an ordinary pig organ, which would kill the patient.

Xenotransplantation in living patients was banned by the FDA due to many medical concerns. The medical community has by-passed the ‘99 FDA ruling by conducting this research on brain dead patients. The advancements in xenotransplantation have one side of the medical community overjoyed, but those opposed to the concept of brain death are extremely concerned. How can so-called dead patients be used to test the successfulness of genetically modified pig organs? 

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The concept of “brain death” relies on the idea that the brain is the master integrating organ of the body, therefore the complete cessation of brain function would cause the body to cease being a unified organism. Many medical cases have contradicted this idea. Individuals can meet the criteria for “brain death” yet continue to live, demonstrating integrated functions of the body. These brain dead patients are dead for the sake of medical research, but are alive enough to test the effectiveness of a genetically modified pig organ. If these patients are truly dead, how did the New York patient’s kidney successfully function for another 32 days? How did the Alabama patient have life-sustaining functions for another week when he was declared dead? By using a “brain dead” patient to prove the success of this procedure, they are simultaneously disproving the legitimacy of brain death! Simply, “brain dead” patients are being used as lab rats for the sake of finding a solution to the organ shortage. 

A more ethical and promising solution to the organ shortage crisis is the development of artificial organs. Scientists can engineer artificial organs that seamlessly integrate into the human body to replace, duplicate, or augment the function of a person’s natural organs. Over the last few years the FDA has approved the use of some artificial organs, but there are ongoing developments. The FDA’s approval means no brain dead patients would be used as lab rats. This also means that the supply would meet the demand. 

The organ shortage crisis is a real and relevant issue. Wanting to find a solution to organ shortage is not the problem. The problem is developing a “solution” that bends the rules and crosses ethical boundaries. This is why testing the successfulness of xenotransplantation in brain dead patients is wrong. This process is viewed by many as a remarkable advancement, but just because we are advancing technology doesn’t mean that we are improving medicine. 

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