And this little piggy got cloned . . .Every year, countless patients wait for an organ donor so that they can use the organ to prolong their lives. But the waiting lists are long, and many people cannot afford to wait.
As far back as the early 20th century, the transplanting of animal organs was explored as a way to meet the medical demands, but it was quickly abandoned when many of the patients who received animal organs died.
Nowadays, xenotransplation is hot. In laymen's terms, the word means the transplanting of an organ from an animal to a human being.
The animal of choice? Pigs. In the last couple of years, researchers have been working with genetically altering pigs so that patients who receive a transplant from a pig will be less likely to reject the organ.
Park Kwang-wook, 35, is one of the researchers who has been in at the forefront of this new science. "Pigs are the future," he says. "It's that simple."
Mr. Park, who holds a Ph.D. in agriculture, from the University of Missouri-Columbia, is also the chief executive officer of Mgenbio, a biotechnology startup established last July by two local companies, Macrogen Ltd. a biotech firm, and SunJin Co., a livestock firm.
Mgenbio's chief aim is to clone pigs suitable for organ transplants for the human body.
Mgenbio is the first domestic firm to make such attempts. A typical working day at the company has Mr. Park and seven other people scrambling about a pen-like space in Hyehwa-dong, central Seoul, at the Seoul National University Hospital, trying to find various solutions. Among all the lab equipment is a pig doll, the unofficial mascot of a company determined to change the landscape of organ transplantation.
Why pigs? Why not chimpanzees? After all, aren't chimps the smartest animal next to humans?
Mr. Park says that chimps are too expensive and that their organs are not really suitable for transplants. "Foremost, the organ size of chimps is too small," he says. "On the other hand, the organ size of pigs is just about right."
Another aspect is that it only takes about eight months to grow a full-size pig, while the gestation period of pigs is only about 114 days, with 10 to 15 baby pigs born at one time.
Nevertheless, the mass production of standardized pig organs ready for sale in hospitals isn't going to come anytime soon.
For Mr. Park, this journey began in January 2002 when a paper he wrote on pig cloning appeared in Science magazine and soon after attracted international attention. In his paper, Mr. Park explained how he successfully removed a gene called GGTA1 from a pig. The gene was thought to cause the rejection of foreign organs by the human body. "I think we are looking at about 10 years or so before we see someone walking the streets of Seoul with a pig organ implant," Mr. Park says.
He estimates that clinical testing can begin within the next five years.
It seems that the chief executive isn't too worried about the general perception of using pig organs in human bodies. According to the Korea Network for Organ Sharing, the number of registered patients waiting for an organ transplant at the end of 2002 was at 2,196. Out of this pool, 1,537 received a transplant.
One hundred fifty-nine patients died last year while waiting. "There is definitely a shortage that a greater supply would help," says Chung Moon-sik, an official with the organ network.
Dr. Lee Suk-gu, head of the transplantation center at the Samsung Medical Center, would like to see a successful pig transplant -- or, for that matter, any other animal organs that could solve the shortage problem. "Speaking from a medical standpoint, if all technical issues are resolved and pig organs are ready to be used without problem, that is quite good news for our patients," Dr. Lee says.
Nevertheless, the transplant surgeon adds that a consensus should be reached between religious parties, animal rights activists and other parties that have branded the practice of xenotranplantation unethical.
Other groups might not embrace the new technology as readily, either. "In principal, Muslims do not eat pork for religious reasons. The Koran says that a pig is lazy and Muslims do not want their human character to be contaminated with it," says Lee Haeng-rae, an imam, or prayer leader, for the Korea Muslim Federation.
When asked what Muslims would might think about having pig organs transplanted inside their bodies, an immediate reply is not forthcoming.
After conferring with Abdul Wahab, another imam, Mr. Lee says that in a life-or-death situation, carrying an organ from a pig would be considered acceptable.
"Ideally, if another organ from a human being or another animal than a pig is available, that would be a better choice," the imam adds after a pause. "Nevertheless, if one wanders around in the jungle for three days without food and a pig comes along, what do you do? You eat it."
Shuttling between the company's recently finished factory in Icheon, Gyeonggi province, and his laboratory in Hyehwa-dong, two to three times per week, Mr. Park has high hopes for the company's new facilities.
"We expect to conduct 100 to 200 cloning tests on pigs per year. Our next goal is to identify other genes in pigs that cause rejection by the human body."
Mr. Park says that they have already identified some promising potential genes.
In 1984 in the United States, the National Organ Transplant Act was announced and the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network was established. The network is a system for the private sector and its aim is to assure that patients with the greatest medical need will receive organs regardless of their location.
The act also makes it illegal to sell human organs and tissues out of fear that the wealthy will have an unfair advantage. Nevertheless, despite such measures organs are marketed all over the world.
"Being prepared is a good idea," says Dr. Lee, emphasizing that an infrastructure needs to be built to embrace all the changes that are going to come when this new technology leaps out of the pen and into hospitals worldwide.
by Brian Lee