Today I’m learning all about how pigs can save our lives.

Find out more with James Lowe at his show ‘Will Pigs Save Our Bacon?’ on the 22nd August. 

Why do we even need to consider xenotransplantation?

Xenotransplantation is the transplantation of organs and other bodily tissues from non-human animals like pigs into humans. It has been pursued for decades as the supply of organs that ill people need to replace their own faulty or diseased organs does not meet supply. Hundreds of people die in the UK alone every year through not getting healthy organs in time. Many more suffer from the delay, for example being on kidney dialysis for years.

Why is xenotransplantation not just a health issue, e.g. it’s also a moral issue?

It’s difficult to imagine a health issue that does not also have moral and ethical dimensions. There are indeed a number of potentially thorny ethical, social and political issues associated with xenotransplantation. One is that the promise of its quick implementation may undermine efforts to improve the supply of human organs. Another is that it is exploiting animals for human benefit, treating them as means to our ends. Of course, if you eat animals then you are doing the same, but if you have an objection to that on ethical grounds, it makes sense to extend that to xenotransplantation as well. There are cultures and religions where pig meat is considered forbidden, raising the possibility that they may not have the same access to treatments using pig organs, but there is intriguing evidence that it may not be so clear cut. There are multiple other issues that xenotransplantation touches on, for example the role of genome editing and modification, and the creation of ‘humanised pigs’, that reanimate many debates that arose with particular fervour in the 1990s.

Is xenotransplantation really the healthiest option

The healthiest option would be prevention of damage to organs in the first place. If this is unavoidable, then ideally, people should be able to receive organs from other humans. Alongside campaigns to encourage people to register as an organ donor and tell their families about their decision, there have been moves to change the law to ensure that the onus is on people to say they don’t want to donate organs, rather than having to volunteer. This is the so-called ‘opt-out’ approach, and it forms part of a bill currently before the Scottish Parliament.

In the absence of appropriate human organs, xenotransplantation can be an option, though for most organs this will not be the case for several years at least.