Human Organ Farms

Experiments in xenotransplanation (cross-species organ transplants) date back to the 1960s, with little success until recent advances in genetic engineering. In the mid-1990s, scientists around the world laid the groundwork for breeding pigs as organ farms, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives per year.

Pigs have been chosen because they can be bred rapidly, they can be raised free of known diseases, and they raise few ethical objections compared to the use of primates. Genetic engineering allows the pig cells to produce human proteins that prevent the organ from being rejected.

In the United States, about 18,000 organ transplants are performed each year, while another 40,000 qualified patients wait for donor organs, and another 100,000 people die without qualifying. Initially, xenotransplants will likely be used to prolong a patient's life until a human organ is available.

Dr. David White, founder of one of four small U.S. companies working on xenotransplantation, said, "The nice thing about the pig is you know who the donor is going to be weeks or months before the transplant. It's not like you're waiting for someone to fall off his motorcycle."

In October 1995, Australian scientists announced their progress towards genetically engineering animals to grow organs that will not be rejected. The scientists expect clinical trials by the late 1990s for transplanting pig organs into primates and then humans.

In another experiment, insulin-producing beta cells from specially bred pigs enabled mouse and monkey transplantees to overcome diabetes. Human tests are planned soon.

Overcoming diabetes is merely a foreshadowing of things to come. As Gregory Benford wrote in the November 1995 Reason, the world may be entering "The Biological Century." Bioengineering may become one of the driving forces of society and culture.

Sources: October 14, 1995, Scripps Howard news service article "Australian doctors develop animals for human transplants," and January 4, 1996, New York Times News Service article, "Genetically altered pigs bred for organ transplants;" November 1995 Reason.