By Perry Fenton
What if someone you loved needed a kidney transplant? Organ donor lists are a mile long and black market goods aren’t really an option for most people, nor are they an attractive option for anyone. After all, it isn’t like scientists have some sort of organ farm set up in their backyard, right? However, if recent medical breakthroughs are anything to go by, this science-fiction type theory could become a reality. Scientists at Tokyo University are attempting to grow human organs inside of pigs. A human bladder was implanted into young children with severe bladder issues at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and a replacement ear was grown onto a cancer patient’s forearm at the John’s Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Biotechnology has been moving forward at an ever increasing rate, but some question its credibility and cost.
Genetic engineering is a process which involves taking selected DNA from one organism (such as the gene in an apple that gives it its red pigment) and adding it to another to change the other organism in some way. Natural selection a lot less specific, and the likelihood of the organism inheriting the desired trait is a lot less uncertain. However, breeding is mainly utilized in the agricultural industry. Scientists employ a slightly different method when re-growing parts of the human body onto real life patients. For instance, If a team of scientists wanted to regrow an ear or bladder (either on the patient or in a petri dish) , they would use a type of cell called “seeder” cells- cells taken from either the patient’s body or a willing donor to recreate- and reprogram the cells. This is similar to the method used in the agricultural industry, however breeding is not a component in the process.
Although scientists are a couple years away from growing fully functioning human kidneys in pigs, they have been able to regrow bits and pieces of the human body. Less complex body parts, such as the bladder or the ear have been successfully re-grown and transplanted into patients (as previously mentioned). Such is the case with skin cancer victim Sherrie Walter, who was forced to have her original ear surgically removed. Scientists at John’s Hopkins offered the 42 year old mother a chance to hear again by regrowing her missing ear using cartilage from her ribs. The ear was regrown underneath the skin of her arm and successfully reattached to her ear. The ear took 4 months to grow and 20 months total for the ear to re-attach and become fully functional. Walter told the press “I just want people to learn from the story and understand that they have options out there, talking to your doctor and realizing you have options. Because honestly, anything is possible.”
However, not all Genetic Experiments go quite as smoothly as Sherrie Walters. In 1999, an 18 year old man named Jesse Gelsinger died due to an injection attempting to cure his ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC) deficiency, a rare metabolic disorder that was held at bay by a strict diet and medication. Instead of helping, the injection caused “multiple organ system failure”, resulting in his death. Gelsinger’s death prompted ethicists to question the security of bioengineering.
“Unfortunately, the dangers posed by such genetic surgery are profound. Most genes in the human genome perform multiple functions, and little is known about these complex interactions among genes. Also, gene sequence is important, and there is essentially no control over where, in the human DNA strand, the foreign genes will end up.” says the Institute of Science, Technology, and Public Policy. Bioengineering is a vastly uncharted territory, and scientists are only beginning to understand it. The long term results caused by tampering with the human body may have unintended results. “GE vaccines have never been studied for safety. The risk of severe allergic reaction is significantly increased. They require more adjuvants. They must be repeated frequently…” claims an editorial on Gaia Health. Although the main consensus throughout those who oppose the advancement of bioengineering is a deep distrust of the ramifications of scientific tampering, their reasons for such distrust are vastly diverse.
For instance, The website Evidence For God (the name somehow invoking the image of a pack of irate christians attempting to assemble a multi page thesis to show to His Almightiness once they reach the pearly gates) claims that stem cell research (and by extent bioengineering) is far too expensive for taxpayer dollars, stating “The state of California is in the midst of a huge budget deficit due to overspending at the hands of a reckless legislature and permissive governor (recalled by the California electorate in 2003). Although the California economy is beginning to recover, the deficit is in the tens of billions of dollars. We don’t need to add an additional 6 billion dollars (3 billion for bonds and 3 billion for interest)2 to fund questionable research and special interest groups.” there is no guarantee that such experiments will pan out in the long run, while meanwhile health care costs continue to be on the rise. In short, people don’t want to pay more money for something that may or may not pan out in the future.
Despite claims that bioengineering could have harmful effects in the future, or that the price of the research is too high for struggling taxpayers, it appears that public and government interest have pushed ahead for the advancement of such technology. On March 9, 2009, President Obama ended the stem cell research ban previously set in place by President Bush, stating that “medical miracles do not happen simply by accident,”. I am inclined to agree. Although there are valid reasons for taking caution when becoming involved with bioengineering, the benefits ultimately outweigh the disadvantages. In short, Biotechnology and the implications it holds for future generations and the advancement of medical technology is not going away, despite the protests of certain organizations.