There is some exciting news for people in desperate need of organ transplants, as researchers have successfully grown a fully-functioning human kidney in the body of a lab rat. However, like many major medical advancements, this one comes with a pretty controversial catch.
According to a study recently published in the American Journal of Transplantation, the organs of aborted human babies can be salvaged by transplanting them into rats. In this way, they can then be grown and developed and later reclaimed for human use.
The study details how researchers have so far only managed to grow organs a fraction of the size of what would be needed for human use, but intensive analyses have revealed that these kidneys are still fully functioning - and most importantly - fully human. This, of course, reduces the chances that an organ recipient's body will reject the kidney - a problem that occurs even with donor organs transplanted directly from one human to another.
Study co-author Eugene Gu, a medical student at Duke University and the founder and CEO of Ganogen, Inc., a biotech company in Redwood City, Calif., recently told Live Science that the ultimate aim of this work is to "end the human donor shortage" - a line repeated again and again on his company's website.
Past research has also revealed that modified pig hearts can be successfully transplanted into baboon patients, and these transplants can last for a year or more without complication - a boon for patients who would otherwise die while waiting on organ transplant lists. Craig Venter, the founder of Synthetic Genomics and one of the first scientists ever to sequence the human genome, received a stunning $50 million investment from the United Therapeutics Corporation (UTC) last year to start an animal organ bank for this very cause.
But by essentially both adding and reversing (in some respects) an animal-to-human transplant - traditionally called Xenotransplantation - Gu hopes to do away with that waiting list entirely. This could save the estimated 21 lives lost a day waiting for a transplant, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. (Scroll to read on...)
[Credit: Justin Htaung / Ganogen ]
However, as can be expected, raising human fetus organs in an animal only to be slapped back into a living person raises a great deal of ethical questions.
Former labor and delivery nurse Jill Stanek recently told the Cybercast News Service (CNS) that as a pro-life advocate, she finds the idea of aborted fetuses being used to further research and even further an organ bank "abominable."
"This is horrific on so many levels," she told CNS, adding that she can see it heading quickly to a time where entire humans are lab-grown just to be used for organ harvests.
And while such opposition sounds a bit sci-fi dystopian, Hank Greely, an ethical and legal expert on biomedical science at Stanford Law School, added in an interview with Live Science that there are immediate and very real ethical concerns centered around this technology as well.
"The key issues are the existence of the pregnant woman's consent and the total separation of the decision to abort from the decision to let the fetal remains be used in research," he explained.
This essentially rules out emergency abortions for medical reasons, as the expecting mother involved won't have time to give permission to use the fetus for this kind of work.
However, Gu added that this is exactly the kind of fetal tissue that will one day be more likely accepted by American society, if not globally, for transplant use to save an innocent's life.
"There would, at the very least, be the role of using human fetal organs obtained from [emergency] therapeutic abortion procedures to save a baby with a fatal disease," he argued, adding that he is well aware of how uncomfortable the technology will make many people.
But it saves lives, and that, he says, will be what makes it more palatable in the case of patients who have no other option. It's food for thought, at least, while this intriguing research continues to be investigated by supporters and critics alike.
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