According to National Geographic, “Every ten minutes, a person is added to the national waiting list for organ transplants. And every day, 22 people on that list die without the organ they need. What if, rather than relying on a generous donor, you could grow a custom organ inside an animal instead” (2017)?
In biology, a chimera is an animal that contains cells of two different animal species. Scientists, Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte and Jun Wu of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California have been successfully creating chimeras by injecting mouse embryonic stem cells into rat embryos to grow healthy pancreases that they then transplanted into diabetic mice.
Mice that they injected with rat cells lived on into adulthood, even developing chimeric gallbladders that contained both mice and rat cells, even though rats don’t have gallbladders. Earlier this year, these scientists went one step (or a few) further on creating a human chimera by injecting human stem cells into pig embryos so as to grow and harvest human organs for the people whose stem cells they belong to.
And here I thought “when pigs fly” meant that it was never going to happen. The science side of me thinks this is remarkable and could save countless lives, but the Pagan (and maybe vegan) side of me sees this as immoral. Granted, the pig knows nothing of its shared organ cells inside of it, and so, ignorance is bliss. That is until you slaughter it because its sole purpose in life was only to host your organ so you can live, instead. But how is this different than simply eating the pig, especially if the pig had lived in a livestock pen or slaughter house its entire life? Humans eat meat for the protein and nutrients to sustain themselves, just as other animals do that eat their prey. But I do believe there is a moral difference between hunting your prey and raising it for slaughter, which brings me back to creating chimeras for organ transplants. Maybe it’s still too early in its acceptance stage for the minds of the public and thus, mine as well, but eating meat is natural; it’s of Nature. Injecting human stem cells into the embryos of pigs and having sows carry them so their young can unknowingly develop human organs for people to harvest at the expense of these pigs, is not of Nature. I think it’s cruel because it reminds me of the orthodox belief that nature, and all of its creatures, are ours to consume and subdue to our will. As though we aren’t animals, but a separate, higher being.
Due to the questionable morality of this work, the US government suspended taxpayer’s funding toward the research in 2015. What research that has been done, has been privately funded. Regardless, having a pig grow to develop full grown human/pig hybrid organs is still very far away in science. Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte and Jun Wu implanted 2000 human/pig embryos into 41 surrogate sows. 18 of these became pregnant with 186 embryos that were examined after four weeks. The human cells that remained were very few, but the scientists were very pleased that there were still human cells remaining and that the embryos had generated the precursors of muscle, heart, pancreas, liver and spinal cord tissue. There is still a concern, however, that the pigs could accidentally gain some human qualities in their brains, or make human egg or sperm. Furthermore, the embryos that still contained human cells developed at an extremely slow rate which could have something to do with the difference of pregnancy time spans for pigs versus people. Belmonte and Wu have also said that the chimeras don’t always have to be brought to full term; the fetus can still provide human pancreatic cells to treat diabetes, or kidney cells to repair injuries to that organ. Their next step in this research is to inject as many human stem cells into the embryo as it can take, hoping more will survive in development.
Now, the reason they’ve chosen pigs is due to the similar size and appearance of organs we share, even though there’s a bit of a gap between our evolutionary history. But there’s more we share with pigs than just anatomical organs. Throughout world mythology, we have deities that either depicts pigs, are associated with them, ride them, or are partially pig themselves like Varahi from Nepal. In Greek mythology, Hercules captured the Erymanthian Boar for Eurystheus, as his Fourth Labour. Pigs were also a favorite sacrificial animal of various cultures and are used as a main festive dish for several religious holidays.
Jun Wu is eager to change the negative mindset of the public toward his work. He says, “In ancient civilizations, chimeras were associated with God.” These human-bird hybrids, we know as angels were believed by our ancestors to have guarded and protected them. If that doesn’t translate to him “playing God,” I don’t know what does! But to me, this isn’t about playing God and creating new creatures. It’s about whether or not we should use these animals we once deemed sacred, animals we share this planet with, to biologically host our new organs and develop them for us to take. Temporarily testing on animals for the sake of scientific and medical advancement is one thing, but creating chimeras for organ transplants would be continuous; it would never stop.
Would we send the remains of these hundreds of chimeras’ bodies, after we harvest them, to the meat packaging industry, or would the government deem them unsafe due to the number of human cells within? These questions on ethics and land capacity for these new chimeras are what we have to ask ourselves as the research continues. Do we sacrifice those that we love for the sake of what is right or wrong, or put this aside to save hundreds of people from dying and risk losing more land space to livestock that we’re already using for the growing food demand of our population crisis? Should we be creating angels, or should we let 22 people every day leave to live with them?
Kansas Stanton is a Naturalistic Neo-Pagan who resides in Seattle, Washington. He belongs to, and practices with, a local group of Reform Pagans and blogs at https://leavesontheroad.wordpress.com/. He also volunteers every year at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle and regularly attends various Pagan festivals and events.
He is a full-time student, earning his degree in Environmental Science and a Certificate in Sustainability, after which time he will move on to law school to receive his Juris Doctor in Environmental Law. When Kansas is not in class or working his job in the art industry, he also attends heavy metal concerts both locally and internationally. He is also a vegan outdoorsman who frequents the trails and whitewater rivers of the pacific northwest and loves to spend his time with friends over a cold, dark beer.