Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Animals as Medical Experiments

What are the ethics of using animals as a means for human ends? While we deplore the word “animal” since it reduces other living organisms to objects, we’ll use it for shorthand. As for medical experiments, in this context we mean advancing “humanity” at the expense of animals. In the never-ending periods of political turmoil, civil unrest, and war, it’s easy to ignore the inherent rights of animals. Nevertheless, we cannot luxuriate in humanity while the rest of the world – wildlife and animals raised as food or for human experimentation – suffer and die for our pleasure or gain. Recently, we noticed an article in Wired1 entitled “A Monkey Got a New Kidney from a Pig – and lived for 2 Years.” The article prompts us to question our moral duty toward animals.

Let’s take a closer look at the article under consideration. For instance, the word “got” appears in the title. That word makes it sound as if the monkey just reached into the pig’s body to procure an organ willingly relinquished. Or, “got” as in gotcha! Or, as in “got” what was deserved. Language about animals shapes our perceptions of them. Additionally, what’s meant by “a monkey” – just any monkey? Did he or she not have a name or personality like your dog or cat? The monkey surely had an identity – they, like pigs, are genetically close to humans. The expression “new kidney” is equally puzzling. That kidney was not new – it belonged to the pig. What makes the kidney “new” in the eyes of the reporter and scientists is that it was artificially engineered to function in a monkey; this is not natural selection. Finally, we are supposed to revel in how the monkey recipient lived for two years after the jerry-rigged transplant. The primate in question was a cynomolgus monkey with an average lifespan of twenty-five years. Considering that the transplant was not made on an aged monkey, years were erased from his or her life. This species of monkey’s small size and compliance render them desirable for lab experimentation. Of course, as our readers might know, monkeys used for lab tests are produced like cabbages and shipped globally, as if disposable and replaceable commodities. Worth noting, these primates often live confined and barren lives in university and medical laboratory cages. 

The pig in question was a Yucatan miniature pig, with an average lifespan of about thirteen years. They are popular laboratory animals since they are docile and become tolerant of human handling. There’s one line in the Wired article that resonates disturbingly: “… pigs are already raised for agriculture.” In other words, since some animals have already been designated as objects of commercial use by humans, why not also expose them to medical experiments. We already raise animals as our food – fatten them with hormones and fill them with antibiotics before slaughter and packaging. So, it seems, as the logic of the Wired writer suggests, if we can eat them, why not employ them for invasive trials benefiting emerging medical technologies. The fact that animals suffer in the human obsession for advancement is just collateral damage, it seems. Bear in mind that as usual this experiment was not a transaction between one pig and one monkey; dozens are used, and then magnify that number by how many other researchers race to achieve similar results elsewhere and then how many more animals perish when the tests are replicated over and again.

Certainly, humans benefit financially and socially from animals in a multitude of ways. Consider our long history of using horses, whether in work or war. There are dogs who guide the blind and enhance law enforcement. Rabbits and a host of rodents used in the cosmetic or pharmaceutical industries help us smell sweet or live comfortably. Since we’ve been using animals as objects, and not recognizing them as subjects of their own lives, it only seems reasonable, so the logic goes, to harvest their organs for human transplant. The argument is that we can artificially engineer pig organs and experiment on primates because they are “like us”; but that likeness claim should be a reason for us to treat them humanely. Have we learned nothing since the dark days of Old Testament animal sacrifices or Descartes’ vivisections? The pig kidney in question, otherwise fully functional for its owner, was genetically re-engineered using Crispr2 to make the organ compatible for xenotransplantation. The kidney of the Yucatan miniature pig is similar in size to a human’s organ, and the genomic edits promoted graft endurance and minimized rejection in a primate body like ours.

The scientists who managed this complex process provide some interesting language in the title of their paper. They state to have “designed” a “humanized” pig donor. Humanized design seems rather strange phraseology but suggests that the gene-editing protocol on animals is only for human advantage; or, it’s as if other species that evolved adaptations over eons to survive and reproduce in their own ecological niches don’t even really exist for themselves. We doubt medical ethicists would condone performing these procedures on herds of humans confined to a research facility. More to the point, one sees the word “plantation” in the language of this animal medical research, conjuring expansive farms of donor pigs bred to lose their internal organs.

Without having to cite sources, it’s well known that like many animals, monkeys and pigs are extremely sapient and sentient, so it seems unethical and cruel to conduct Frankenstein experiments on them solely for the benefit of “humanity,” especially in this highly technical era assisted by artificial intelligence and computer-generated imaging. We realize that medical research is dependent to some extent on animal experimentation, but where are the lines to be drawn and at what cost to nonhuman life? The Hippocratic Oath3 reads, in part, as follows: “I will soothe the pain of anyone…. Never will I betray them…. Under no circumstances I will use his body to advance my knowledge or fame…” Not surprisingly, the oath and much medical research is anthropocentric: there are few limits to the breeding of and experimentation on multitudes of test animals if the results benefit humans.

- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D. and Fredericka Jacks, Editors, ASEBL (animal studies ethical behavior literacy)

References and Notes

1. Mullen, Emily. 2023. “A Monkey Got a New Kidney from a Pig – and Lived for 2 Years.” 11 October, Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/a-monkey-got-a-new-kidney-from-a-pig-and-lived-for-2-years/

2. Anand, Ranjith, et al. 2023. “Design and Testing of a Humanized Porcine Donor for Xenotransplantation.” Nature 622: 393-401. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06594-4

3. Arenas, Amelia, trans. 2010. “Hippocrates’ Oath.” Arion 17.3. https://www.bu.edu/arion/files/2010/03/Arenas_05Feb2010_Layout-3.pdf

Biospecimen monkey image from IQ Biosciences https://iqbiosciences.com/blog/serious-monkey-business-short-take-cynomolgus-monkeys-research/  

Biospecimen pig image from Sinclair Bio Resources  https://sinclairbioresources.com/miniature-swine-production/micro-yucatan-miniature-swine/

Copyright©2023 by Gregory F. Tague and ASEBL. All Rights Reserved.