August 20, 2018

A majority of Americans support using biotechnology to grow human organs in animals for transplants

Scientists are researching ways in which pigs and other animals could be genetically modified to allow them to be used for the growth of human organs. (c.morgenstern via Getty Images)

Majority supports bioengineering animals to grow human organsAlmost six-in-ten Americans (57%) consider it an appropriate use of technology to genetically engineer animals to grow organs or tissues that could be used for humans needing a transplant, while 41% say this would be going too far, according to a new survey by Pew Research Center.

The findings are part of a larger pattern that reveals Americans are more likely to support the bioengineering of animals if it benefits human health.

Demand for transplantable organs and tissues continues to grow in the United States. Last year saw the most organ transplants ever performed in the country. Organs were recovered from more than 10,000 donors – an increase of more than 25% over the past 10 years. Health experts attribute this increase, in part, to breakthroughs in medical technology that have made it possible to recover organs that previously would have been unsuitable for transplants. But, despite these advances, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that the gap between supply and demand remains wide.

Researchers are hoping to close that gap through the development of new medical technologies. One such approach is 3D organ printing– a process that uses “bio-ink” to print layers of cells that grow to form transplantable tissue.

Another method under development uses genetic engineering to grow human organs and tissues in animals. There was a breakthrough with this technique earlier this year, when scientists used gene editing to create hybrid embryos containing both human and sheep cells.

When the survey – conducted April 23-May 6 – asked the 41% of respondents who opposed this application of genetic engineering to explain, in their own words, the main reason behind their view, the objections included concerns about the use of animals in this way for human benefit (21% of those asked) and the potential risks for human health (16% of those asked).

The responses included:

“In manufacturing organs, the existence of these animals would be miserable … I can’t ethically say that I would agree with such a practice.”

“Factory farming already as an industry unethically treats animals. I imagine organ growing wouldn’t treat the animals any differently.”

“When you mix human and non-human genetics I believe that will cause extreme problems down the road.”

“Even human-to-human organ transplants often reject, so I can only imagine the bad side effects that an animal-to-human transplant would cause. Keep things simple and the way nature intended.”

Topics: Emerging Technology Impacts, Science and Innovation, Social Values

  1. is a writer/editor focusing on science and society at Pew Research Center.