Human organs from pigs–is it kosher?

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

Human beings can have a visceral reaction to the thought of growing human kidneys or livers inside the bodies of pigs or cows. A participant in a recent online forum on human/animal chimeras described it this way: “Unbelievable!!! …If there was anything that was more anti-God it is the genetic formation of chimeras which is nothing more than Frankenstein monster creation.”

Although the idea of a chimeric animal is indeed unusual, several factors need to be considered in evaluating the practice of growing human organs within animals. Despite our initial hesitations, certain kinds of human/animal chimeras are likely to be justifiable and reasonable. This comes into focus when we recognize, for example, how thousands of patients who have received replacement heart valves made out of pig or cow tissues are already themselves a type of human/animal chimera. For many years, moreover, scientists have worked with chimeric mice that possess a human immune system, enabling them to study the way that HIV and other viruses are able to infect cells.

We routinely use animals to address important human needs. We eat them and make clothing out of them. We keep them in zoos. Utilizing them for legitimate and important medical purposes like organ generation and transplantation should not, broadly speaking, be a cause for alarm. As another online participant noted, only half in jest: “Think of it — a pig provides a human heart, lungs, and liver then the rest is eaten for dinner! ….Plus the pig will likely be chemical free, well-fed, and humanely treated.”

If a pig were in fact able to grow a human kidney in place of its own kidney, and if it could be used for transplantation, it could provide a major new source of organs in the face of the critical shortage that currently exists. Many patients today are on waiting lists for a kidney, and a significant percentage die before an organ ever becomes available.

Yet significant technical and ethical hurdles remain before growing organs in pigs is likely to be feasible.  The science is still in its infancy, and researchers have yet to figure out how to make human cells co-exist in a stable fashion with animal tissues. There are abundant concerns about the possibility of transmitting animal viruses to humans especially considering how readily other viruses like avian flu have been able to jump from birds to humans.

Even assuming these kinds of risks are able to be minimized, and pig/human chimeras could be safely produced, there would still be several ethical issues to consider. One concern involves using stem cells from human embryos as part of the process of making pig/human chimeras. Typically scientists try to generate chimeras by adding human embryonic stem cells to animal embryos, which then grow up and develop into chimeric animals. Destroying young humans in their embryonic stages for their stem cells is gravely objectionable, so creating chimeras could be ethical only if alternative, non-embryonic sources of stem cells (like adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells) were utilized for the procedure.

The technology might also lend itself to other unethical practices, like trying to create a pig that could produce human sperm or eggs in its genitalia. Similarly, if human nerve cells were incorporated into a developing pig brain in such a way that the animal developed what appeared to be human brain structures, some have noted there could be questions about the occurrence of intelligence or self-consciousness or other facets of human identity in the animal. Although such concerns seem farfetched, given the dearth of knowledge about the “scaffolding of consciousness,” it seems reasonable to limit this kind of experimentation. Some scientific agencies like the National Institutes of Health have restricted the availability of research funds for the study of human/animal chimeras because of these and other considerations, seeking to levy pressure so that the needed ethical discernment and discussion occurs before researchers proceed further.

We tend to view modern scientific progress as a powerful “engine of good” for the well-being of mankind, and therefore we view most scientific research with hope. This is proper and fitting, and to reinforce and reinvigorate that hope, we should continue to insist that cutting edge biomedical research remain in active dialogue and interaction with sound ethics. The expanding study of human/animal chimeras challenges us to reflect carefully on the morally appropriate use of these novel and powerful technologies, so that human dignity will not be harmed, subjugated, or misappropriated in any way.

Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org

COMING UP: Vietnamese parish community raises $80,000 for storm relief

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About 800 Vietnamese refugees, immigrants and their relatives gathered on Veterans Day at Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Parish event center in Wheat Ridge, raising more than $80,000 for survivors of recent storms in Texas, Florida and central Vietnam.

“We dedicate this event to God, and to Mary,” said co-organizer Viet Hua. “We’ve been praying and asking for help, in God’s way, to glorify him in our effort to help those who suffer.”

It was an evening of food, music, dance and auction goods that sold for thousands more than market value in the spirit of exceeding an ambitious $75,000, one-night fundraising goal. Half the money will go to Gulf Coast recovery, and half will go to Vietnam.

Hua, a member of the parish’s Knights of Columbus chapter, said at least 100 men, women and children volunteered to organize and operate the event.

Denver-area businesses with Catholic and Vietnamese owners, managers and employees minimized overhead with donations of food, beverages, services and auction items.

It touches my heart now to help others – from a place where I can exercise my faith, where I can succeed, and where I can gather with community.”

“This is faith, fellowship and compassion at its finest hour,” said Sang Truong, marketing director of Denver’s Beverage World Specialties, which donated cases of Chilean Paso del Sol wine.

Two major hurricanes wreaked havoc along the Gulf of Mexico this year. As of Veterans Day, 12 tropical storms and typhoons had devastated parts of Vietnam.

Typhoon Damrey struck central Vietnam November 4, destroying nearly 3,500 homes, flooding 138,000 homes, killing 123 people and leaving 395,000 Vietnamese in need of assistance.

The scene is painfully familiar to most who head the 1,800 families that comprise Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs. They endured killer typhoons in the 1960s and ’70s, as communists invaded.

“Communists took over in 1975, and these people came here because they love freedom and they want to practice their faith,” said Pastor Louis Ha Pham, who escaped Vietnam in 1975 with 350 other members of the Congregation of the Mother Co-redemptrix religious community. “They want to use their freedom and faith to help others who suffer and lack the advantages of everything we have here.”

Co-organizer Hua barely survived a typhoon that slammed into his South Vietnamese village when he was a young child in the 1960s.

As water filled the family’s bamboo hut, Hua escaped with his mother and siblings to a neighboring residence. Water soon rushed into that hut, forcing Hua and other occupants to punch through the roof.

“We’re yelling for our lives in the middle of the night,” Hua recalled.

South Vietnamese soldiers pulled them from the water and onto a boat, but the suffering had only begun when Hua and his family reached dry ground in the mountains.

“You have no clothes, no food, and no fresh water. You have nothing,” Hua said. “So it touches my heart now to help others – from a place where I can exercise my faith, where I can succeed, and where I can gather with community.”

Hua escaped Vietnam by himself as a sophomore in high school in 1975. Communists had killed his father. They had threatened him and his family with machine guns.

“I remember they had us lined up, and my grandfather stood there telling them to shoot him,” Hua said. “He lifted up his dirty white t-shirt and said ‘shoot me. Just do it.’ I’m glad they didn’t, because that would have really messed me up as a child.”

Hua built his American life around Our Lady of Vietnamese Martyrs, thanking God each day for liberties the communists took from his homeland.

“I thank God, and I thank Americans for the opportunity to be here with resources to help people back home,” Hua said. “We thank you Americans so much for helping the Vietnamese to migrate here and live free.”

Que Truong, lead organizer of the event, said all Hurricane recovery is hard. It is worse in a dictatorship.

Items were auctioned off as part of a fundraiser held at Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Parish on Veteran’s Day to help raise money to provide aid to Vietnam, Florida and Texas, which were all recently hit by storms. In total, the parish raised over $80,000 in one evening. (Photos by Dede Laugesen)

“It is terrible over there,” Truong said. “In south Vietnam, we are not free to do anything. There, most people are poor. It’s a different story here, so we are very eager to help.”

Joining the Catholic parishioners were Vietnamese dancers and others from Denver’s Nhu Lia Buddhist Temple. Vietnamese from a Baptist church also participated.

“This is the first time we have all sat down and had dinner together,” said parish Vice President Hung Vu. “Refugees of any religion know how it is to have nothing – to have empty hands and empty stomachs.”

Vu’s father starved to death after a typhoon devastated the family’s village in 1978. Communists ruled the family’s church. Everyone in Vu’s life suffered deprivation of basic needs.

At age 8, Vu fled while working on a fishing boat.

“The boat next to ours planned to escape,” Vu recounted. “They waved me over. In an instant, without a moment to think about it, I jumped out and swam to their boat. They pulled me up and we started sailing out of the China Sea.”

The narrow, 35-foot vessel contained 97 “boat people” crammed together in fetal position. They quickly ran out of food and water, finally obtaining supplies from a passing ship.

“We wanted freedom of religion, and opportunity, and were willing to die trying to get it,” Vu said. “We have suffered. Now, we are so blessed to be here in the United States with all we have. We are so thankful for the veterans who have defended this way of life. This church is my family, and this family is blessed to help those trying to recover in Texas, Florida and Vietnam.”