More than 100,000 Americans are on waiting lists for organ transplants. Many will die before the organ they need becomes available.
Those deaths may soon be avoidable. A team of researchers in Japan just announced that it had successfully grown mice kidneys inside rats using only a small collection of stem cells. Researchers noted, “This approach could be used to generate human stem-cell-derived organs in livestock.”
In other words, scientists could eventually grow human organs in pigs and other mammals — and then transplant those organs to sick patients.
Some fringe activists want to shut such revolutionary research down — and ban scientists from conducting medical studies in animals. Doing so would effectively tell the hundreds of thousands of people awaiting organ transplants they haven’t suffered long enough.
Thousands of Americans are alive today thanks to organ transplants. In 2017, surgeons in the United States performed more than 34,000 transplants — including more than 3,200 heart transplants and nearly 19,500 kidney transplants.
Without animal research, these operations wouldn’t have been possible. Consider the history of the heart transplant. In the mid-20th century, researchers employed animals to investigate how to perform a transplant and minimize the chances of organ rejection. In the 1950s, U.S. surgeon Norman Shumway began performing heart transplants in dogs. Building off his work, Professor Christiaan Barnard practiced transplants in animals for years, and ultimately completed the first human-to-human transplant in 1967.
Animal research continues to influence the field of transplant medicine today. Scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, for example, recently analyzed how blood serum from a human baby interacted with cells from a genetically modified pig. The scientists found no adverse reaction. Based on this experiment, researchers believe babies in need of heart transplants might be able to rely on a pig heart until a human heart is available.
Animal research could also make organ transplants safer. It’s difficult to determine when a body starts rejecting an organ. In many cases, a biopsy will be normal, and a patient will feel perfectly fine until organ damage is already severe. New research from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University could change that. Using mice, scientists developed a method that makes urine fluorescent when the body starts rejecting an organ.
Despite the potential for such research to save and improve lives, critics continue to attack scientists for using animals in research. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals recently called on the federal government to investigate animal research at the University of Washington. Activists have also staged protests at other prominent research institutions, including the University of Delaware, the University of Missouri, and Colorado State University.
Activists claim animal research is cruel and unnecessary. They say there are other ways to conduct research that don’t involve animals — such as using cell cultures or computer models.
But such restrictions would stifle medical progress. Cell cultures and computer models aren’t sophisticated enough to replicate how a transplanted organ will interact with human and animal immune systems.
Further, scientists don’t abuse animals. The opposite is true — they go to great lengths to ensure animals are treated humanely. The federal Animal Welfare Act also sets a host of regulations, guidelines, and inspection requirements on scientists who use animals in research.
Americans are dying because there aren’t enough organs available for transplant. Animal research offers us a chance to save the lives of our fellow citizens.
Matthew R. Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. This piece originally ran in Deseret News.