Will We Spurn This Science?
Terry H. Schwadron
Jan. 13, 2022
The sarcastic joke used to be that we could land a rocket ship on the moon and still not be able to cure the common cold.
The updated version, is that we can launch an telescope with amazing precision 600,000 above Earth, even as U.S. Covid case numbers topping 1.5 million in a day, along with spiraling hospitalizations and deaths. We talk about Living with Covid without all committing to doing the new habits required to do so, and with this Omicron virus still peaking, we all know people who’ve gotten at least a little sick.
Extend the lens a little wider and you see climate change effects worsening as national governments continue to deny they have arrived, that quack alternatives are being rated by a strong minority and several state governments as just as effective as vaccines, and that we can’t tell for sure that introducing new 5G technology isn’t interfering with aircraft landings.
What’s happening at the same time is a remarkable distrust for Science and Scientists just as Science is bringing us fantastic new possibilities.
Prime among them this week was the news that doctors had successfully implanted a fully grown, genetically altered and cloned pig heart to keep a 57-year-old man alive in Maryland, an achievement immediately heralded as an astounding achievement. Of course, like so many other scientific and medical advances, is not sudden, but rather the outcome of years of research and development in everything from altering the pigs to making the rejection-free.
For families who only see death ahead for family members stranded on lists for livers, hearts, kidneys and other organs, here was a tangible rope of hope happening in a hospital where the staff was likely dangerously depleted by Covid before it becomes the new common cold.
A Remarkable Achievement
The headline was because this was a first such heart implant, naturally. But the news was that a groundbreaking procedure could offer hope to hundreds of thousands of patients with failing organs.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit that coordinates the nation’s organ procurement efforts, last year, 41,354 Americans received a transplanted organ, more than half being kidneys. Yet we have a shortage of organs from other humans, dead or alive. The Times reported that a dozen patients on transplant lists die waiting each day.
This particular surgery was officially experimental and required specific approval from the Federal Drug Administration. It involved a pig from a private biomed company that introduced 10 genetic modifications that either overrode human rejection or made the pig’s heart bigger and immunologically ready for this use.
The patient remained attached to a heart-lung machine when it was over, but the new porcine heart was doing most of the work, doctors said. There was no question that the patient would have died without it.
So, we’ve arrived again at xenotransplantation, the process of grafting or transplanting organs or tissues from animals to humans. While some efforts to use the blood and skin of animals go back hundreds of years, organ transplants are more recent, advanced mightily by development of the arts of gene splicing, cell cloning and pharmaceuticals to keep rejection down.
The pigs are seen as good candidates for genetic work to grow organs because they grow to adult size in six months and for years already have successfully provide heart valves, diabetes-free pancreas cells and skin grafts.
What Could Go Wrong?
The news sounded pretty great.
So, I’m waiting for the anti-Science crowd to be heard about why we shouldn’t proceed, starting with a denial that the operation ever took place. Rather, it was tourists who stopped by the hospital and a dying patient suddenly revived after an exciting speech from Donald Trump.
Maybe relying on pig organs will prompt a lawsuit over religious objections either involving dietary laws or altering humans’ natural failings. After all, if God wants us to die, we should, without whimper or protest.
Maybe the anti-vax crowd will be in the streets to stop whoever is the Dr. Anthony Fauci of transplants to keep on this side of gain-of-function research needed to alter pig immunology. Or the governors of Florida and Texas may move to take up individual pig rights and bar localities where such surgery is permitted.
Maybe the pro-life view will be extended to pigs.
Meanwhile, in 10 minutes, the other side will be complaining that we are not developing pig brains fast enough for required replacements of various forms of mental defectiveness, including whether anyone with a pig-installed brain can vote by mail without special identification papers.
Or demand that “heart” implants now also include the best attributes of heart and soul, like passion and caring for others. How soon might we start hearing about a government mandate that lots of our leaders get a new heart or about an investigation of manipulations of names on the organ-wait list to maneuver their way to the top?
We should celebrate our scientific advances and, well, learn to live with them. Mocking Science, like burning books, never leads to a good conclusion,
Along the way, we might find a cure for the common cold, like taking personal precautions instead of mocking them too.