Xeno Chronicles: How to become a Pig and live to Tell About It

The Xeno Chronicles: Dr. David H. Sachs and His Fantastic Plans for the Future of Medical Science by G. Wayne Miller

Xenotransplantation is the use of non-human organs in humans.  Follow this link if you want a good summary of the concept: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenotransplantation

Still with me, then consider reading this book if you want a slightly more complete understanding of one researcher in Xenotransplantation, Dr. David Sachs.  Dr. Sachs is a very sympathetic character who has a dream of saving people through the use of animal organs.  In 2005, the publication of the book, Dr. Sachs has had some success with a genetically bred pig.  Unfortunately concurrent with this success is the loss of his major funding source.

The author does a good job of both portraying Dr. Sachs as a highly capable research, boss and a nice person in general.  Glimpses into Dr. Sachs early life are provided including a bout of polio.  On the other side, Wayne Miller presents a reasonably balanced portrayal of the pros, cons and moral minefield of using ‘Babe’ for our human replacement parts.

Babe the pig – not the same variety used for xenotransplantation but possibly just as cute (and tasty!). (image courtesy of virgin media)

Personally, I don’t have a problem with the concept of breeding animals for replacement human parts.  As long as the animals are treated well and have their life ended humanly, breeding (and the eating) Babe so that a person can life a fuller and longer life is okay with me.  Unfortunately (or fortunately for Babe), Xenotransplantation seems to be a long way off.

Although Baboons have survived a few months on pig hearts, every hurdle cleared seems to expose another challenge.  Thus, my larger problem with pursuing xenotransplantation is the diversion of resources away from other organ sources.

For example, an Opt-Out rather than an Opt-In system can increase the supply of donations.  In an Opt-Out system, everyone is assumed to be a donor unless they have expressly requested that they take their organs to the grave (Monty Python movie sketches notwithstanding).  A better registration of the intent to donate can mean that organs don’t go to waste when there was an intent to donate (e.g. Alberta’s new Donor Registry).

The challenge with a better human (or allotransplantation) is still rejection by the recipient.  Although this has improved over the decades with better matching and drugs, rejections is a threat looming over everyone saved with a new organ.  Xenotransplantation has a better supply of organs but the reasons for rejection.

Which leads me to my conclusions of xenotransplantation, this book and a lifetime of research conducted by Dr. Sachs.  I suspect that it may be time to give up on the idea of Babe as an organ donor.  It was a good idea and a good try but the effort remaining and the risk of cross species disease transmission does not make a good investment for society.  Instead, lets continue improving the supply of organs but also put our efforts into either machines that duplicate an organs function or growing  organs through cloning.

A machine that duplicates an organ function can be ever more precisely engineered.  Thus the clumsy artificial heart of the 1990’s can quickly become the science fiction of tomorrow.  Even better, lets grow or clone replacement organs and thus eliminate rejection and disease cross contamination.

So my thoughts on the idea of Xenotransplantation, Dr. Sachs and Miller’s book?  A good idea whose investigation was worthwhile and an okay book for those who can find it cheap or free.