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Corn+Soybean Digest

Piggyback On Biotech

Some incredibly exciting news recently happened in agriculture that could have mammoth consequences for all of us.

Scientists have cloned baby pigs that lack one of two genes that prompt the human immune system to reject swine tissue. It's yet another biotechnology feat that will advance the ability to develop hog organs that can be transplanted into humans.

The importance of this science is the technology that hatched it: biotechnology. Instead of having to explain why you plant biotech crops, wouldn't it be nice to put a human touch to your defense?

Wouldn't it be rewarding to tell your local Rotary Club that the biotech seeds you plant were derived from a technique that's also going to help provide lifesaving transplant organs to those with little hope?

Ag biotech discussions usually revolve around crops and feeding a starving world. Now, you can talk about how a biotech process — using, of all things, pig parts — that could actually save lives.

Even though experts say it may be five to 10 years before these transplants could begin, expect to hear much more about this cross-species transplantation process, also known as xenotransplantation, in the months to come.

About 5,800 people in need of transplantation die each year in the U.S. because of a shortage of donated organs. With their compatibility, pigs may offer a potentially unlimited transplant supply source.

Already, physicians are using various pig components — heart valves, clotting factors, islet cells, and even brain cells — to treat human conditions. But the complicated process of transplanting entire hearts, livers and kidneys from pigs into humans has its problems, both medical and ethical.

Medically, there are concerns about transferring deadly swine viruses that have evolved with pigs over millions of years. Some researchers, however, believe science will find a way to overcome this potential obstacle.

Ethically, should we risk the health of the general population, long-term, on a procedure that would benefit a single individual? And more simply, do you want a pig's heart pumping blood through your body? Faced with no other organ donation options, what would you do?

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