Are pigs about to save our bacon?
By Paul Mcgarr
"CLONED PIGS Raise Hope Of Organs For Humans". "Cloned Pigs Hold Key To Future Transplants". These headlines greeted the announcement last week that scientists have now produced the world's first cloned pigs. A clone is an individual genetically identical to another. Clones occur naturally-identical twins are clones.
But in recent years scientists have cloned existing adult animals, producing young offspring which are genetic copies of them. In 1996 scientists produced the famous Dolly, a clone of an adult sheep. Cloned cows, mice and goats have followed. But pig cloning has been hailed as a breakthrough because, for a variety of biological reasons, pigs may produce organs suitable for use in human transplants.
In any organ transplant, including those from another human, there is a risk that the body's immune system will attack the transplant as "foreign" material. Scientists believe they may be able to use genetic engineering to modify pig organs so they are not rejected by humans. Such organs could then be mass produced by cloning. The hope, say those involved, is that this could end the massive shortage of donor organs which kills thousands of people each year.
Cloning and genetic engineering also hold out the possibility of breeding animals which produce in their milk medical products which could save lives. This could lead to better treatment for diseases from cystic fibrosis to diabetes. Some have raised ethical objections to using animals in these ways. But we use animals for all sorts of things already-from food to leather and wool.
If animal milk could be made to contain products which could save lives, it would be worthy of serious investigation. If animal organs could be used to save lives, that too would merit serious discussion and investigation. But there are real problems. Many animals suffer from viral infections which, in those animals, are relatively harmless.
But if the virus is passed to a different species it can change into a new, more deadly virus. This is not science fiction. Many human diseases originated from animals, including TB, flu, smallpox, leprosy, measles and the common cold. There is evidence that AIDS originated when a virus crossed from monkeys and chimps to humans, and changed into its deadly human form on the way. Using animal organs for transplants could increase the risk of more such horrors.
These worries are not an argument for abandoning all investigation. There are, however, other, safer ways to tackle the donor organ shortage, such as putting resources into public education and donor card schemes. But the real dangers involved in possible transplants mean that all investigation should proceed with extreme caution and full public debate.
This is precisely what is not likely to happen. All the research is being driven by commercial considerations. Behind the cloned pigs is PPL, a company set up as a commercial spin-off of the Roslin Institute, which developed Dolly the sheep. It boasts about patenting its work and cornering a transplant "market" worth up to �8 billion a year.
PPL shares soared by 19 percent on the day the pig clones were unveiled. PPL makes a loss today. If it is to start delivering those profits, pressure will grow to cut corners, shroud work in commercial secrecy and cover up problems. Paranoia? Last month's revelation that hundreds of people died in experimental gene therapy treatment in the US, and that their cases were covered up for fear of damaging commercial ventures, suggests not. The only answer is for science to be taken out of the hands of private, profit-driven business, and for research to be conducted using public funds with full discussion and debate.