In "Organ Farm," a two-part documentary, FRONTLINE offers an inside look at the
highly secret, multibillion dollar industry of xenotransplantation
(meaning cross-species transplants). The program takes viewers into the
bio-secure, airlocked world where researchers are working on developing
pig-to-human organ transplants which promise to offer hope to millions of
desperately ill patients.
"Organ Farm" visits several experimental facilities where pigs are being
genetically-modified for use in humans. Because a human body would immediately
reject a pig organ as foreign, these "transgenic" pigs are genetically altered
with human DNA in the hope that a human recipient's body will be fooled into
thinking the organ is human. The end goal is to create a living production line
of these partially humanized pig organs to use as spare parts for humans.
And, while such whole-organ xenotransplants are still in the future, testing
already is underway on fetal pig cell treatments for brain impairments like
Parkinson's disease, stroke, epilepsy, Huntington's disease and spinal cord
injuries. FRONTLINE follows several patients in these experimental
trials, including a twenty-one-year-old stroke victim and a man incapacitated
by severe Parkinson's disease. Xenotransplantation was their last hope.
This view of medicine's possible future, seen from the inside, also includes
interviews with top xenotransplant doctors, researchers and medical
ethicists, many of whom discuss not only the great promise of this
breakthrough science, but also speak candidly about its risks.
Because pig cells and organs contain a unique virus within their genetic
material, some fear that transplant recipients would not only contract this
virus--known as Porcine Endogenous Retrovirus, or PERV--but also possibly
spread it among the general population. Some scientists also worry about the
possibility of still unknown viruses which could be transmitted in
"The ultimate concern is that you create AIDS II by doing xenotransplantation,"
says Hugh Auchincloss, surgical director for transplantation at
Massachusetts General Hospital and chairman of the FDA's subcommittee on
xenotransplantation. "And nobody is quite capable of saying that's
The development of xenotransplantation is also under attack by animal rights'
groups, which have denounced the extensive experimentation on wild primates and
pigs in the name of scientific advancement. In "Organ Farm," FRONTLINE goes
behind the scenes at facilities conducting the controversial animal
experiments, giving viewers the chance to view the experiments in
progress. Surprisingly, scientists engaged in xenotransplant research do not
completely refute the charges made by animal rights activists.
"We have to be frank about this: We are exploiting these pigs," says Dr. David
White, director of research at Imutran in Cambridge, England. "But I believe
it's far more justifiable to exploit these pigs in order to save people's lives
than for the production of food."
It's a debate that has both sides frustrated--particularly doctors and
researchers, who say that every moment spent arguing over the ethics of
animal experimentation delays a scientific breakthrough that could
revolutionize medicine and save millions of lives.
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