Tag Archives: genome editing

Consider the pig – killed, humanised, resuscitated, for the benefit of whom?

On April 18th, 2019, I had the pleasure of speaking to Adam Rutherford for BBC Inside Science about the experiments carried out by scientists at Yale University reanimating pigs’ heads:


Following from our conversation, I wrote down a few  thoughts here: *

Consider the pig – they have made the headlines and the cover of the two major American scientific journals in  the last two years: first in Science when scientists led by George Church at MIT created humanised organs in pigs with CRISPR genome editing technology, raising spectre of Margaret Atwood’s “pigoons” , 57578698_2057650081000436_7939556395970461696_o( I wrote a little article on those experiments here) and today when in an article published in  Nature, scientists at Yale University described how they engineered  a technology – which they named Brain Ex – which was able partially restore cellular functions in pigs severed heads several hours  post mortem.  The Italian saying, “nothing is thrown away of the pig”, seems to be most appropriate here.

While some commentators have rushed to write that the Yale experiments  have  huge implications for our understanding of ‘death’, this is incorrect. As a matter of fact, the BrainEx technology does not change our conception of death, at all. Legally, there are two types of death – cardiac death (absence of pulse) and brain death (defined in the UK, as absence of brainstem functions).

Brain death was established as a legal criterion of death fifty years ago, with a declaration of the World Medical Association in Sydney, and an Ad Hoc Report of the Harvard Committee. What the Yale scientists have been able to do with BrainEx technology is observe a decrease in cell death and some preservation in anatomical and neural cell integrity, in combination with the restoration of specific cellular functions, in the absence of global brain activity.

The 1968 Declaration of the World Medical Association included a paragraph which clearly stated  that cellular function was not necessary for determination of death. (“Cessation of all life at a cellular level is not a necessary criterion for the determination of death”.) Fast forward fifty years,  we have the BrainEx technology that allows us exactly to restore this cellular function, but this has no impact whatsoever on the legal determination of death.

In the West we have a brain-centric conception, which goes back to Descartes’ and the mind body duality, according to which the brain is where our  human identity and essence lies.  Think if instead of the brain we were talking about re-perfusing and reactivating some cellular function in another organ – if we had a LiverEx, or KidneyEx, or LungEx technology, would we make such a big deal out of it? Probably not. But, it would probably be more useful than the current technology, as it could be used to prolong the window of viable for organ transplantation for essential organs (currently, we don’t have brain transplants). As a matter of fact, it is questionable why the Yale scientists did not try their technology on other organs first, where the clinical applications in terms of organ transplantation would have been more straightforward.  I suspect it is because the experiments would have had less of an impact, at least in this part of the world.

The Yale experiments only show us that some cellular function is reactivated a prolonged period post mortem – it is not that surprising   as they would like us to believe that we are able to intervene aggressively with technology and restore some cellular function!


Luigi Galvani’s electro-physiology experiments in Bologna, 1791

Indeed, the Italian Luigi Galvani in the late 18th century was conducting pioneer electrophysiology experiments on frogs, and showing that dissected legs of frogs in his laboratory at the University of Bologna seemed to jump to life under various conditions, because of signals going through their synaptic (neuronal) cells. His experiments demonstrated for the first time and the nervous system delivered animal electricity to muscle tissue, and inspired May Shelley to write her famous novel “Frankenstein”

, which by some commentators is now being used to refer to the experiments by the Yale team as “Frankenswine”. The poor Shelley is surely turning in her grave at seeing the latest mis-use of her title.

With an homage to David F. Wallace, we could say: consider, again, the pig: often killed, sometimes humanised, lately resuscitated. For the benefit of whom?

*I tried to publish this in “The Conversation”, but they turned me down 😦

Bioethics of Genome Editing – Education Session at ASGCT’s 21st Annual Meeting

A recording of my talk (and introduction to the bioethics of genome editing) at the Education Session from the American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy’s 21st Annual Meeting (Chicago May 16, 2018) is now available thanks to ASGCT.

New paper out for Ethics & Politics: “CRISPR Pigs, Pigoons and the Future of Organ Transplantation”

This paper has been published for a special issue titled “From Genome Editing to New Reproductive Technologies: Ethical and Social Issues” of the journal Ethics & Politics, XX, 2018, 3, pp 35-52. ISSN: 1825-5167 guest-edited by Dr Maurizio Balistreri.


This paper discusses the possible biofuture imagined by George Church, in which we are able to grow humanized organs in pigs and edit them with CRISPR genome editing technologies so that they are free of porcine endogenous retroviruses that pose a risk for human transplant, and juxtaposes it with the biofuture imagined by Margaret Atwood in her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake. I adopt Ari Shick’s critique of speculative bioethics to show how an over-emphasis on the urgency of the experiments may overshadow other non-medical solutions to the problem of shortage of organs for transplantation. In the end, I draw some reflections on the role that science fiction and speculative fiction play in the construction of biofutures for bioethics.

The full paper can be accessed here.