As a society we have just decided that animals are here for our benefit. In some ways, this capitalist stance is harmless, like sheep farmers who populate the pastoral landscape of Britain or alpaca farmers who lovingly shear their herds to make hats, gloves and things.
It’s dystopian in another way; the commercial dairy industry, factory farming and the appalling working conditions in meat processing plants. Animals as a product are widespread in our lives, including in medicine.
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People today regularly receive heart tissue from pigs and cows. These procedures have been around for so long that we accept them as “normal”. However, the history of cross-species transplants didn’t start with heart tissue, and the dropouts and false starts are downright bizarre. Here are the ten weirdest cross-species transplants in history.
16 chimpanzee kidneys
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Before there were dialysis centers nationwide, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when kidney failure was much more common and devastating. In the early 1960s, Dr. Keith Reemtsma 13 Chimpanzee Kidneys in Human Patients. He was a renowned transplant surgeon who also developed an aortic balloon pump for people waiting for a heart transplant and worked on pancreas transplants.
Dr. Reemtsma chose chimpanzee kidneys because they are about the size of humans and we have the same blood types. Of the 13 patients with chimpanzee kidneys, most people survived from a week to a few months and died from possible organ failure or massive infections from the immunosuppressive drugs.
One woman survived nine months, long enough to return to work. She later died of an alleged electrolyte imbalance. Chimpanzee kidneys don’t work like human kidneys in that they peed up to 5 gallons a day.
A baboon liver in Pittsburgh.
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The 35-year-old recipient of the baboon liver was HIV positive with hepatitis B and cirrhosis. In the six months before the transplant, he was hospitalized almost continuously. After other hospitals denied him a liver transplant, doctors at the University of Pittsburgh introduced the idea of the baboon liver.
It is believed that baboons are immune to hepatitis and that the donor primate has the same blood type as the recipient. Doctors also tried a new immunosuppressive drug that was still in an experimental phase.
The patient was only able to walk and eat five days after the transplant. The liver tripled in three weeks. The transplanted organ changed the man’s body chemistry to more closely resemble that of a baboon. At this point, due to all the medications he was taking, the patient suffered kidney failure to keep his body from rejecting the liver and required dialysis. He died just over two months after the transplant. The cause of death was widespread infection.
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I was excited for part two with pieces and bits of more than just primates.