The transgenic dilemma: Body or soul?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2001:

Are you eating pork when you eat a tomato? Would having fish genes qualify a pig as “not pork”? Is a cow with human genes either more or less holy than a cow without?

In the brave new world of biotech, such questions make careers for lawyers and philosophers–and terrify the faithful. Even as biotech makes food more resistant to viruses, bacteria, mold, and fungi, vegans often find that trans-species
hybridization complicates their effort to avoid all traces of animal products and byproducts. Orthodox Jews, Hindus, Jains, and Muslims may even feel that biotech puts their souls at risk.

The appeal of absolute belief tends to be that it establishes easily understood rules of conduct. The more basic the belief, the simpler the rules: Thou Shalt. Thou Shalt Not. One God. Ten Commandments: no more than can be counted on fingers.

But simple rules require simple definitions. And in transgenic and xenographic science, there are none. That makes the traditional Jewish and Islamic prohibitions on consuming pork and the Hindu proscription against eating beef a series of religious, philosophical, and political battlegrounds. The Jain prohibition on ingesting any living being in any form,  always hard to obey because of the dfficulty of seeing small insects, already became impossible for strict literalists with the discovery of microbes, but the injunctions against pork and beef have endured centuries, withstanding translation into every language and transplantation into every human culture–until now.

Now they are confounded by medical and agricultural practices which have become routine in some parts of the world while still unknown in others. Pigs’ heart valves have been implanted in humans for more than 25 years, for instance, and skin grafts from pigs have been used to help burn patients. Until recently, such techniques often took decades to
perfect. But biotech advances seem now to be accelerating to warp speed the research, development, and testing phases of transgenic and xenographic procedures.

When pigs fly

Just over three years ago, in March 1998, 38-year-old James MacDonald, of West Lafayette, Indiana, received the first
transplant into a human of small intestinal submucosa from a pig, as part of a surgical knee reconstruction. In February 2000 the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of pig small intestinal submucosa as a patching material for almost any sort of soft-tissue wound–even eye injuries and some types of stomach ulcer. Now SIS, as it is called, has been used to treat more than 25,000 human patients, and is well on the way toward even more common use.

A similar product made from a matrix of collagens taken from the livers, stomachs, and urinary bladders of pigs has been used to make replacement larynxes, intestines, and other organs for about 30 dogs whose original organs were removed as part of the study, Purdue University Department of Biomedical Engineering senior researcher Stephen Badlylak disclosed on March 22. This product too is believed to be on the fast track to FDA approval and general use.

In 1998, doctors disclosed experimental use of pig livers to keep human liver transplant candidates alive pending receipt of livers from human donors; transfusions of pig blood into humans; transplants of cells from genetically modified pigs to treat human spinal cord and brain injuries; and injections of fetal pig brain cells into the brains of Parkinson’s Disease patients.

Experimental use of fetal pig tissue to treat diabetes began in mid-2000, under direction of Diacrin Inc. researcher Jonathan Dinsmore. If that treatment works, it could improve the quality of life for 1.5 million Americans, plus millions more people abroad. At about the same time in mid-2000, researchers in Japan, Scotland, Virginia, and Wisconsin separately announced the births of cloned pigs, a first step toward mass production of pigs genetically modified to supply replacement organs for people. Reports indicate that any or all of these procedures could soon follow SIS into frequent application.

The market for human use of genetically modified pig parts is believed to be so potentially lucrative that the Hormel and Smithfield pork-packing empires have invested millions of dollars in related research, with partners including the Mayo Clinic, Baxter Healthcare, and ProLinia Inc. The pork barons are hoping to catch up to the Imutran, Infigen, and Geron Bio-Med research empires, whose scientists are believed to be the leaders in research and development.

People who eat pork are not expected to have ethical qualms about accepting transplants from pigs–and that includes most of the population in the most affluent parts of the world. For those who object to pig parts, alternatives may eventually be developed, grown in other species. Researchers, ethicists, and investors tend to believe that anyone who eats meat will readily accept transplants and other products modified through the use of animal genes, as soon
as they are proven safe.

PERV throws curve

Animal welfare concerns are not considered to be much of an impediment to transgenic biotech either–because most of the source genetic material can be taken from animals who were raised to be butchered anyway; because animals raised specifically to provide organs for transplant must be kept in healthier conditions than meat production facilities afford; and because the advent of genetic modification enables researchers to use far fewer animals in each new
product safety test. The effect of procedures or substances on human organs may now be studied by inserting human genes into the bodies of test animals to give their organs human properties.

Conventional wisdom in the biotech field is that genetic research is far more compatible with animal welfare than the search for drugs and surgical treatments. In August 2000, however, concern about the liabilities associated with pig endogenous retroviruses (PERV) caused the Roslin Institute of Scotland and Geron Bio-Med of California to drop out of the race to produce replacement human organ in pigs.

Although PERV does no harm to pigs, and so far does not appear to infect people, British virologist Robin A. Weiss proved in 1997 that cross-species infection can occur via test tube. Since PERV invades cells in much the same manner as HIV, integrating itself into the genetic program of the host, there are scary implications should people ever become vulnerable to a PERV strain.The PERV problem seemed to be solved in December 1999, when Bio-Transplant Inc. researcher Clive Patience announced that his team had bred a genetically modified pig which does not carry PERV.

The London Sunday Times reported in August 2000 that, “The use of pig organs for transplant to humans is poised to win governmental approval.” But the BioTransplant claim has apparently not yet been independently confirmed. And even as Sunday Times reporters Jonathan Leake and Lois Rogers wrote, the British Natural Environment Research Council revealed that Imperial College researchers Michael Tristem and Joanne Martin had found evidence that some pig retroviruses jump species barriers in the wild.

“When viruses jump species, they usually acquire pathogenic properties,” Tristem told London Observer science editor Robin McKie.The Boston-based Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation reinforced the British findings with a warning about PERV in December 2000. In February 2001 the third annual report of the United Kingdom Xenotransplant-ation Interim Regulatory Authority cautioned that due to PERV and unsolved tissue rejection problems, “The likelihood of whole-organ xenotransplantation being available within a worthwhile time frame may recede.”

Commented Interim Regulatory Authority member and heart transplant surgeon John Dark, of Newcastle, “Xenotrans-plantation is the future of transplants–and it always will be.” But even if people never receive replacement organs
cultivated in pigs, surgical use of other pig parts is likely to keep growing.

Hybrid cowboys?
Applications of biotech involving cattle to human health care were relatively slow to emerge. The emphasis of genetic research with cattle has mainly been on producing more lucrative dairy and beef breeds. Ethical discussion remained subdued until October 1998, when Vandana Shiva of the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology warned India that the Roslin Institute had applied for a patent on the genetic properties of the vechur cow. The vechur is a rare Indian breed, found mainly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala states.

Shiva urged the Indian government to assert a claim to the genetic properties of all native Indian animals and plants.
Other commentators soon linked the scientific, legal, and economic issues that Shiva raised to ethical concerns involving the treatment of the “Mothers of India.” Especially offensive to many Hindus would be the use of genes
from Indian cattle to make cow slaughter more profitable.

On the far side of the world, Advanced Cell Technology chief executive Michael West, of Boston, was successfully melding human DNA with a cow’s ova to produce a hybrid cell of potential utility in growing organs in cows which will be compatible with human bodies. Concern that the procedure might produce a hybrid fetus or lead to cloning humans was so prominent in news coverage during November 1998 that then-U.S. Presi-dent Bill Clinton sought the advice of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. A hearing was held in Miami, a non-committal report was issued, and the work proceeded.
Unmollified, prominent voices from the Christian right have persistently demanded that the National Bioethics Advisory Commission be dismantled–which would actually diminish public oversight of genetic research.

Low average

Michael West, meanwhile, claimed in April 2000 that while sheep cloned by the Roslin Institute have shown symptoms of premature aging, his cloned cattle seem to be free of the problem. That might make them better candidates than pigs for use in growing replacement organs. But West had produced a calf fetus in only one of 271 attempts. The major anticipated application of biotech to cattle for human medical benefit would be the use of cows as living bioreactors,
who would be genetically modified to secrete human proteins used in drugs.

As this essentially involves only making medicines from milk, a classic Vedic procedure, there is no Hindu resistance to it in concept. Nor is there evident opposition in principle within the U.S. except from opponents of any genetic modification. Neighbors concerned mainly about manure and traffic and only secondarily anxious about biotech have put up the only visible resistance so far to plans by the Dutch pharmaceutical firm Pharming Group N.V. to build $37 million worth of facilities to produce drugs from genetically modified cow’s milk at Craig, Virginia, and at Virginia Tech University.

The Pharming Group project was first announced in early 1999. In August 1999, Agresearch Inc. outlined a similar project that it wanted to start near Wellington, New Zealand, on land leased from the Maori tribe. The Agresearch proposal met heavy resistance. Two members of the Ngati Wairere subtribal council delegation supported Agresearch;
five were opposed.

“It’s a mixing of whakapapa between species which is culturally inappropriate,” explained Agresearch foe Jacqui Amohanga. But the Agresearch project went ahead, under former Roslin Institute researcher David Wells. The goal is to use milk to produce human myelin basic protein, used to treat multiple sclerosis.

Use of actual parts from cattle in human medicine has distantly paralleled the use of pig parts. The first use in the U.S.
of a bovine valve in a human heart, for example, occurred in May 1999, following a procedure previously used in Europe. A valve from a bovine neck was used instead of a pig’s heart valve because a pig’s heart value would have been too large for the patient, a 13-month-old boy who was born with a severe congenital heart defect. He will have to receive the larger valve later, at about age 10.

The biggest subsequent development in cow-to-human xenography, announced on February 22, 2001 by PPL Therapeutics, was a technique for altering so-called stem cells from cow’s skin to produce heart muscle. Commented Donald Bruce, director of the Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion, and Technology Project, “This is an encouraging
breakthrough in the search for replacement cells to treat serious diseases without the need to use human embryos. It is obviously still too early to say that this is the solution we have been looking for, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.”

Tossing tomatoes

Researchers and the medical products industry would mostly prefer that the public continue to believe that pigs are pigs if they look like pigs; cows are cows if they moo and give milk; pig and cattle products are taboo for Jews, Muslims, and Hindus only if ingested as food; and people can otherwise do as they wish with livestock.

Fundamentalists are not so certain. Few fundamentalist leaders, of any religion, have ever fully trusted science. The
scientific method requires questioning certainties of the faith, while the findings of science tend to push the realm of God–the unknown–ever farther from daily human existence. Science shrinks the authority and prestige of priests. Science upsets the social order.

Science means trouble, in short, and when it comes coupled with putting parts or genetic information from one species into another, it also takes the form of an ancient dirty trick: causing thr religious to transgress a taboo unawares. It is said that the Buddha, who ate no meat, died when someone slipped pork into his begging bowl–a story which may least concern Buddhists, many of whom eat pork.

Some of the bloodiest riots in the history of India resulted from rumors that British troops had given Moslem and Hindu recruits weapons greased with lard and beef tallow. As recently as January 23, 1999, alleged Hanuman worshippers burned to death Australian missionary Graham Staines, 58, and his sons, ages 6 and 10, over evidently completely unproven rumors that they had tricked Hindus into eating beef, thereby “forcing” conversion to Christianity.

So what happens when a Jew, Moslem, or Hindu receives a transgenic or xenographic medical treatment? Or eats a genetically modified vegetable? Is such an act sinful? The question may have arisen first in Israel, where surgeons
began implanting pig heart valves in humans about 20 years ago, soon after the procedure was introduced in the U.S. and Britain. It came up again in April 1998, in discussion of a proposed pig-to-human heart transplant which would not have been done in Britain, at the time, because of concern about PERV.

“We as Jews are not supposed to eat the meat of a pig, but there is no reason not to use it to save a human life,” said Shear Yashu Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa and of the Ariel Institute, a rabbinical training center. Universiti Sains Malaysia theologian Wan Salim Wan Mohd Nor, Ph.D., and associate professor of medicine Mohd Nizam Isa, M.D., likewise argued for tolerance at an April 2000 symposium. “When there is no other option, it should be all right to use pig organs,” Nor said, putting the obligation to protect human life ahead of dietary law.

Added Isa, “We cannot afford to close an eye to technology. To debate the issue in relation to moral, ethical, religious, and economic implications, we must first understand what the technology is all about.” But in June 2000, Muslim genetic engineering opponent Chamnong Buanien, of Thailand, invoked the alleged use of a gene from pigs to keep tomatoes fresh as a hoped-for ultimate weapon against the introduction of genetically modified crops in the
southern provinces of Satun and Songkhla, where most Thai Muslims live.

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