Genetic modifications: who cares? - Veterinary Practice
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Genetic modifications: who cares?

ANDREW COE ponders on some tricky ethical issues – and particularly the American approach

I HEARD Robert Winston on the radio this morning bemoaning what he considered to be the over zealous actions of the regulatory authorities in the UK.

The gist of his complaint was that the experimental work he is currently involved with (work that plans to use genetically modified pigs to grow organs for human transplantation) has been delayed and, in some respects, scuppered by over strict regulations. He has decided to take the research to the USA where it can be progressed with far less interference.

A part of me sympathised with his position. As he pointed out, there were thousands of people suffering and indeed dying whilst waiting for a transplant donor to be found. His vision was one of xenotransplantation whereby organs such as kidneys, livers and hearts could be removed from pigs that had been genetically modified with human genes so that their organs would not be rejected by the human recipients.

Helping suffering people

The sooner such research could be conducted, then the sooner, if it were to prove successful, could those suffering people be helped. And so to America he must go in order to be allowed to progress his work, albeit in a less regulated environment.

From my perspective there are two main issues that need to be debated when it comes to the use of animals as “spare part” factories for us humans. The first is the question of the welfare of the animals themselves, and the second is that of the possible risks of such techniques to the wider human population.

In addition, for many other people, there are probably difficult questions based on their religious beliefs that need to be considered and satisfactorily answered.

The welfare of the donor animals is probably the easiest question to address. We already know a lot about pigs and how they should best be kept even if we don’t in practice always achieve the sort of standard that most animal welfarists would like to see. Failure in this respect is often for economic reasons.

If, however, pigs were reared to produce organs for transplanting into people, the economics of production would be so far removed from those of food producing animals that the highest welfare standards should be able to be met, albeit within the constraints of the need for absolute biosecurity and hygiene. Space allowances and sterile manipulable material could be provided in plenty and the animal’s ability to express its normal behaviour could be encouraged.

Is there something inherently wrong with rearing animals in order to “cannibalise” their body parts for our own use? There is an argument that says yes but it is not an argument that I subscribe to. Not if we accept that it is legitimate to breed and rear animals for food when most of us non-vegetarians eat far more animal protein than we need to keep us fit and well. These days we largely eat meat for pleasure and there is nothing particularly wrong with that in my view.

Equally, there is nothing wrong in my book in rearing animals in order to use their organs for transplantation. Just so long as we treat those animals as sentient beings whilst they are alive and in our care and able to suffer and feel pain. What happens to them after they are anaesthetised and ultimately euthanased is almost certainly of ethical interest but is not an animal welfare issue.

The second big question is the need to guard against the possible mutation of porcine viruses or other pathogens that might, because of the inclusion of human genetic material in the host pigs, be adapted to infect people. And not just the people implanted with the pig’s organs either.

We are all aware of the theoretical danger of avian flu viruses recombining with human influenza viruses to produce a new, highly contagious, highly pathogenic human flu. The danger of a similar thing happening in genetically modified pigs and being spread, initially, by xenotransplantation is indeed obvious.

And hence the extremely cautious, though in Lord Winston’s eyes disruptive, approach of the regulatory authorities.

The counter argument was put by Baroness Ruth Deech who supported the cautious approach taken by the UK and described the regulatory situation in the USA as being something like the Wild West. She wished Lord Winston well with his sojourn into the States but thought that the procedure was presently, with our current state of knowledge, just a little too risky to try here.

The conclusion drawn by the interviewer was that Baroness Deech was happy for patients here to receive any benefits whilst it was the Americans who took the risks. Which seemed to me to have missed the point of what the implications of any “problems” occurring might be for the whole world.

After all, we know now that human and animal disease can be a global problem rather than a local problem confined to a discrete geographical area. And whilst good regulation and enforcement can often restrict the movement of animals and animal products, restricting the movement of people is a far greater challenge and, some might say, impossible.

So anything that goes wrong in the USA will almost certainly find its way over to Europe fairly quickly, probably via the UK. So we would do well to take an interest in what is happening over there and not bury our heads in the sand. The old economic cliché that when America sneezes Britain catches a chill might in this case be literally a little too near the mark.

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