The heart of the debate

September 18, 1998

Less death in the lab

How would a chimp react to having a pig's heart inside it? That sort of question exercises Michael Banner (pictured), chair of the government's Animal Procedures Committee. His committee, which advises the Home Secretary on how researchers should be allowed to use animals, is considering the issue of xenotransplantation - transplanting organs from one species into another.

Xenotransplantation has not yet been authorised in Britain. But companies such as Imutran in Cambridge are keen to press ahead with the technique. They argue that there is a shortage of human hearts for transplant and people are dying as a result.

Before surgeons can implant pig hearts in people, they must perfect the technique using animals such as chimps. Banner must decide if such experiments should get the OK. "My committee has no responsibility for human trials, but animal experiments need to be conducted first, and the committee has been asked if such experiments are ethical," says Banner, professor of moral and social theology at King's College, London.

"Xenotransplantation is controversial," he says. "There are questions, for instance, on whether [viruses carried by pigs] pose a risk to human health." But the experiments leading up to its use in hospitals are controversial, too. "To get to the point where surgeons will be good at transferring organs from pigs into humans, they need to trial on primates. And the use of primates is rightly considered a last resort."

In 1997 researchers in the UK conducted more than 3,900 experiments on 3,425 primates. "Because primates have a rich social and mental life, and because they are our cousins, people rightly feel that the use of primates is of more concern than the use of other species," Banner says.

Another vexing issue is the rise in the number of genetically modified animals used in experiments. "Genetic engineering may mean that the number of animals used actually increases," Banner says, because animals may be cloned specifically for research.

Scientists are sometimes too willing to overlook these issues' ethical implications, Banner says. "To suppose that how the public reacts to these new technologies is simply a matter of unfamiliarity is patronising. Often, people's unease can be spelt out perfectly coherently.

"If someone says, 'I understand that genetic engineering might produce all sorts of benefits, but somehow I feel that it is wrong', people say 'Oh that's just the yuck factor'. In fact, what that person might be trying to point to is a manipulative attitude towards animals. Often the sense that something is wrong may express a deeper moral reasoning that public debate must explore and not simply discount.

"Moral reasoning is not exhaustive in the sense that the good consequences outweigh the bad. Sometimes there are things with good consequences that we think we should not do. We could solve the problem of a shortage of kidney donors if people were not required to sign forms consenting to the use of their organs after death. But we do not do that."

Perhaps if we did, the issue of practising xenotransplantation on chimps would not arise.

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