A story in the Telegraph claims that Japanese scientists may soon grow human organs in animals — made from human stem cells — for later use in transplant surgery. I am dubious. From the story:

A panel of scientists and legal experts appointed by the government has drawn up a recommendation that will form the basis of new guidelines for Japan’s world-leading embryonic research. There is widespread support in Japan for research that has raised red flags in other countries.

Scientists plan to introduce a human stem cell into the embryo of an animal — most likely a pig — to create what is termed a “chimeric embryo” that can be implanted into an animal’s womb. That will then grow into a perfect human organ, a kidney or even a heart, as the host animal matures. When the adult creature is slaughtered, the organ will then be harvested and transplanted into a human with a malfunctioning organ.

Well, that certainly presents a host of ethical issues, doesn’t it? I can think of four off the top of my head: First, there is the question of what kind of stem cell. Second, the issue becomes whether creating an animal that has a human organ is ethical from the human exceptionalism angle. Third, some will object creating animals for the purpose of slaughtering them for human organ harvesting. And finally, there are significant safety concerns, e.g., whether the patient or society could be put at potential risk via a porcine virus crossing species barrier through the transplanted organ.

Here are my initial thoughts — and this is very much a matter of first impression:

  • If it were an adult stem cell, say a progenitor kidney stem cell, etc., that would pass muster with me.
  • IF all that was created was a pig with a human kidney, that would be acceptable from the human exceptionalism angle. The pig would remain a pig in the same way as if a human organ were grafted into it and matured before slaughter.
  • I would also enthusiastically accept using and killing pigs as organ farms. I don’t see the difference with eating bacon. Indeed, the justification — again, if it worked, about which I have serious doubts — would be more urgent.
  • The potential devastation of an outbreak of a porcine virus for which we have no resistance could be devastating. I would want a very high level of evidence that the risk is extremely remote.

Again, this is a first impression. I would be interested in reader comments.

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Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC
Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC