It has been tried and tested, has failed every time, and yet we still insist on trying it again.

Xenotransplantation, or animal to human transplantation, may sound very beneficial, but there are many controversial issues surrounding it. There is no mystery as to why.

xenotransplantation has not been in the news only recently. In 1964, six patients received kidney transplants from chimpanzees. Five of the patients survived for only a few days, while the other lived for nine months. In 1984, a young boy with a bad heart received a baboon’s heart and lived for a mere 20 days. Finally, in 1992 and 1993, two patients received baboon livers, but died shortly after the transplants.

One might think this would be enough to turn people away from xenotransplantation. But there is now a new method to go about doing it. Instead of using primates, such as chimpanzees and baboons, scientist are now consider ing pigs to be best suited to play the roll of organ donors.

Pigs are being chosen because their organs are closer to those of human ones than most animals’, and pose less risk of transmitting infective agents.

However, not just any pig will do. Organ donor pigs have to be raised in isolation, where they are free of disease and anything else that could infect them. Furthermore, human genes have to be placed into the pigs so that they have a genetic makeup similar to humans.

“What gene is being used is the human complement gene that tells the body receiving the organ that it matches genetically,” Margaret Sommerville, founding director for the Centre of Medicine, Ethics and Law, told The Interim.

Some critics of xenotransplantation base their arguments on the idea that such activities mistreat or abuse animals. But Sommerville says, “We can justify the use of animals with saving human lives. However, we also have ethical responsibilities to fulfill toward animals and we’re not fulfilling them, and I think it’s one of the great wrongs of our times.”

A glance at the number of people who need transplants, and the number of people who actually receive them, makes for a strong argument for going forward with animal-to-human transplants. Each year in Canada, 6,600 people need new hearts, but only 180 ever obtain one. Another 3,600 people need liver transplants, while just 318 receive one. The number of people awaiting a new kidney is 5,900, and of those, only 940 get one.

There is no arguing that there is a great need for organs, and Sommerville states that, “China is apparently executing prisoners and selling their organs.”

But before proceeding, questions must be answered. Do the benefits of such transplants – benefits that include allowing people a second chance at life – outweigh the costs of risking a large-scale epidemic? Ironically, questions about risks – and risk is a moral issue – cannot be answered without clinical trials, yet such trials are not permitted by the government.

That’s why a recent report prepared for Health Canada by the Canadian Public Health Association calling for a ban on xenotransplantation is so important. The panel studying the issue found that as Canadians learn more about xenotransplantation, the more skeptical they become. “Informed Canadians tended to conclude that the risks of xenotransplantation were greater than the benefits because of health risks and the scientific uncertainty surrounding these risks,” said the report.

Moreover, the report says Canadians want “stringent and transparent legislation and regulations” to be enacted to ensure xenotransplantation, if it ever is allowed, is governed cautiously.

That makes sense to Sommerville, who says that regulations should be strict enough to protect the human population, but ultimately allow life-affirming medical technologies to advance.