The ABCs of Biotech for Christians - Twenty-fifth in a series - X is for Xenotransplantation
The ABCs of Biotech series is winding down. In these final posts we hope to tie up loose ends and provide a brief summary.
Earlier in post 7, we looked at the practice of injecting a florescent agent from jellyfish into humans to differentiate a view to disease using noninvasive imaging technology. We noted that it was one thing to combine florescent cells with human cells for a differentiated view under a microscope, and it is another to inject them into a human for an interior differentiated view, and it is yet another to combine jellyfish cells with any other organism in a germ phase (in vitro fertilization) to merge that florescence with the other subject of experimentation. That is how we get cats that glow in the dark.
“Some say that this principle, that of adding genes from one species or kind to another whether in cells, plants or animals, is what defines the biotechnology industry.” In this post we will consider that principle in relation to transplantation. Xenotransplantation— xeno for strange or other; different in origin,— is:
any procedure that involves the transplantation, implantation or infusion into a human recipient of either (a) live cells, tissues, or organs from a nonhuman animal source, or (b) human body fluids, cells, tissues or organs that have had ex vivo (outside the body) contact with live, nonhuman animal cells, tissues or organs. (ref)
The development of xenotransplantation is, in part, driven by the demand for human organs for clinical transplantation which far exceeds the supply. A history of xenotransplantation is found here.
For diabetics and others with kidney failure, biotech currently is genetically modifying pigs so that their kidneys can be safely transplanted into humans without infecting them with viruses or any complication. Also, pig pancreatic cells are being modified to match human pancreatic cells for transplant to better manage and ultimately heal diabetes.
Using human pancreatic cells for implant to other humans is difficult since there is a shortage of these, and when used they cause side effects from anti-rejection drugs that suppress the immune system. Of course, the pig cells cause more serious immune system problems, but it’s a lot easier to experiment with their bodies, combining their cells with human cells, to come up with cells that seem safe to transplant. Thus do the different species become chimeras. This makes perfect sense to an evolutionist.
By definition, a genetic chimera is a single organism composed of cells with distinct genotypes. But does the pig have a distinct genotype after it has been modified with human cells? Hmmm…
This area of biotech reminds one of the Bible story about Balaam and his ass, or in some versions, donkey. In the account in Numbers, Balaam, a prophet, was asked by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites who were approaching his land as they journeyed to the Promised Land. The Lord warned Balaam not to curse Israel, for they were blessed. As the story goes, Balak was persistent in his plea to Balaam, so Balaam asked the Lord again, and the Lord told him to go with Balak’s men but only to do what He told him to do.
God was angry with Balaam for questioning his command, and sent his angel to stand in his way.
Now he was riding on the donkey… And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road.
Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. And when the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pushed against the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So he struck her again.
Then the angel of the LORD went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam. And Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff.
Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”
And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.”
And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?”
And he said, “No.”
Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face.
And the angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live.” (Num 22:22-33)
God will place barriers in our way to prevent us from rash deeds, and even the unintelligent can perceive them.
How can a biotech scientist discern when a barrier is not to be crossed? After all, in science the name of the game is persistence. Continuing experimentation is the norm.
Bioethicists suggest ways to judge an activity or research project like xenotransplantation:
- Welfare of the pig
- Should we use pigs in this way?
- Should the human-animal boundary be crossed?
- Would the money be better spent on public health campaigns that encourage good diet and exercise that can help one avoid diabetes (etc)?
- What are the benefits and risks?
- What rights need to be protected and who is responsible?
- Should individuals have the right to choose for themselves or does one decision count for all?
- What is the “good” thing to do?
- What are the perspectives of various religious or cultural groups?
In the previous post we saw that experimentation with a plant made by God is leading to a way to preserve the human immune system while targeting the cancer cells only. But xenotransplantation potentially will preserve the patient’s immune system through combining human and animals cells to make one creature more like the other. And be aware, this type of lab research is going on with many species and purposes.
Striving to apply reason and all the rules of bioethics may not work; biotechnicians just need to see the warning in the way.