A Pig Saved My Life

Article by Elio Caccavale, part of the Wild Things e-pub (2011).

The small Texan town of Garland is an unlikely place to find the cutting edge of medical science. Home to just 2,000 people in neat tree-lined streets bordered by wooden houses it’s a friendly, but perfectly unremarkable place. At first sight, the young man sitting at his computer at home in Colgate Lane seems as undistinguished as the rest of the neighbourhood: tall, pale and thin with fashionably cut blond hair and a single ear- ring. Though part of a loving family, the only unusual event in his life was that at the age of six months his grandparents adopted him and became his legal parents.

On Wednesday evenings he accompanies them to Bible readings at the Calvary Baptist Church, a short car journey away. The family are cornerstones of the church community. On other evenings the house is regularly filled with the sound of grandmother Charlotte playing gospel music on the piano. Grandfather Ray, a retired policeman, spends much of his spare time helping to refurbish poor churches around the area. There are bibles on the bookshelves and family photographs smile down from the walls.

But one photo which Ray has framed with special care gives a clue to why the young man at the computer is remarkable. It’s a picture of a pig called Wilbur. Christian churches all over the world have held Thanksgiving services for the life of Wilbur the pig, because Wilbur saved Robert’s life.

Robert is the first person in the world to have been plumbed into a genetically modified pig organ and lived to tell the tale. He has come closer than anyone alive today to having an organ from another species implanted into their body, a ‘xenotransplant’.

Doctors carried out the pioneering but highly controversial operation after Robert’s own liver failed. He urgently needed a transplant to save his life, but no human liver was available, so with his grandparents’ permission the medical team went into action. They brought a genetically modified (or transgenic) pig’s liver in a basin to his hospital bedside and connected it to Robert’s system using plastic tubes. For almost seven hours his blood was pumped through the pig’s liver, cleansing his body of the poisons building up because of his own failed organ.

The pioneering procedure continued until a human liver became available for transplant. The operation, known as a ‘liver bridge’ almost certainly saved his life. It was a major, confident step towards the day when herds of genetically modified pigs may be bred to provide life saving hearts, kidneys, lungs and livers for transplantation into humans. The operation was to be part of a series of trials run by Nextran, one of the leading xenotransplant research companies.

Research into xeno technology is continuing apace. Science fiction has become science fact. Crossing the species barrier will be one of the first great medical milestones in the 21st century. It will also be the crossroads where many of the techniques which will transform medicine in the third millennium, meet. Genetic modification, gene targeting and cloning all come together. If successful, xenotransplantation will rank alongside the first heart transplant and the first test tube baby in terms of its effect on millions of lives.

Many people feel it is immoral and unethical to use pigs as production lines for spare parts for humans. Supporters of xeno say if it’s fine to breed pigs for the breakfast table, then why not for the operating table? The arguments take place against a background of a huge shortage of organs for transplantation. In the UK alone someone dies every few hours because of the lack of an organ for transplant. When xeno becomes commonplace people need no longer face an uncertain future on a waiting list, or have to spend months in hospital. Their condition could be monitored regularly and when the time was right for a transplant, they could undergo the operation without delay.

Xenotransplantation does raise social and ethical dilemmas that make each one of us question just how far we are prepared to go in pursuit of a long, active life. We have long treated animals as things for our convenience, and for the last thirty years we have been applying our latest scientific techniques to make them serve our ends better. Genetic engineering, revolutionary as it may be in one sense, is in another sense just one more way of using animals for our purposes.

We can either leave science to make the decisions about xeno on our behalf, or we can join the debate. It isn’t too late to be heard. Scientific issues are important but not nearly as important as the ethical, social and cultural implications for society.

Utility Pets

Utility Pets is an experimental project that uses hypothetical products and a social fiction scenario to draw attention to the ethical consequence of xenotransplantation — the transplantation of animal organs into humans. Emotional and material considerations are important in our relationship with animals, just as they are with people. However, they also provoke conflicts. The wired and wonderful ways in which human beings have resolved such conflicts provide the central basis of research for the Utility Pets project.

Pigs are considered by animal experts to be more than twice as smart as cats, and infinitely more trainable. They enjoy playing and generally get along well with other domestic animals. Pigs can be clean pets. They will stay tidy if they are bathed and groomed. Considering pigs can be ideal pets, the idea of having animal farms to supply human spare parts seems highly questionable. In organ farms pigs would suffer the cruelty of battery farm treatment, a situation at odds with our bodies and times.

I have imagined a social scenario where the organ recipient has a close relationship with his organ donor. This is expressed through physical objects as well as through the special care the animal receives. The pig is taken home and given a good quality life until the day of the organ replacement dawns. Suffering can be avoided while animal products are produced. We can assume that the evil of factory farming can be replaced with an enjoyable existence for the animal.

The social scenario proposed highlights an emotional exchange, where both benefit, owner and pig. If the medium of design is placed where science meets our lives, where ethical and moral abysses spring wide open, it can offer a platform between reality and fiction where we can freely discuss how we were, how we are and how we will or want to be.

The Utility Pet products include a low-resolution TV exclusively for pigs, which they can control by themselves: a pig toy with a microphone and a radio handset allowing the owner to listen to the pig enjoying itself; a smoke-filtering device allowing a person to smoke in front of the pig without it suffering the consequence of passive smoking; and a comforter — a psychological product made from the snout of the sacrificed pig, which serves as a memento after the xenotransplantation has been carried out, and helps people come to terms with the contradictory feelings generated by this complex situation.


© Elio Caccavale, 2011

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