For the very first time in history, surgeons have successfully transplanted a genetically modified pig heart into a human being. 57-year-old Dave Bennet who had a terminal heart disease is the first ever recipient of a pig heart transplant. The groundbreaking surgery was conducted by a team from the University of Maryland, USA who received emergency authorization for the surgery through its expanded access (compassionate use) provision on New Year’s Eve. The procedure is said to have been the only currently available option for the patient.

For the transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Centre, the pig’s heart had its genes modified to make it more compatible with human; four genes were removed from the the organ, and six human genes responsible for immune acceptance inserted into the pig genome. The organ transplant showed for the first time that a genetically modified animal heart could function like a human heart without immediate rejection by the body.

“This was a breakthrough surgery and brings us one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis. There are simply not enough donor human hearts available to meet the long list of potential recipients,” said Dr. Bartley P. Griffith, who was part of the team that surgically transplanted the pig heart into the patient. “We are proceeding cautiously, but we are also optimistic that this first-in-the-world surgery will provide an important new option for patients in the future.”

This is really great news. But how should a Christian feel about this bold new frontier in medicine?

While xenotransplantation, the transplantation of an organ or tissues from one species to another, is not entirely new, many Christians have never had to consider its moral implications. With the advancement of science and biotechnology this is bound to change soon.

In Genesis, God makes man in His own image and makes him a steward of all that He has made. Following the fall of man and his consequent banishment from Eden, God made clothes for him from animal skin (Genesis 3:21). Subsequently, we see man use various forms of animals for food and other purposes. More recently human beings have benifited medically from pig insulin and heart valves. Xenotransplantation could arguably thus be considered an extension of the legitimate use of animals for man’s survival needs. Criticism about the ‘instrumental view’ of animals where xenotransplantation is concerned are thus inimical to Scripture. The Bible sanctions that view.

While there is no clear biblical prohibition against the idea of using animal tissues or organs, endangering the human genome by altering it in anyway or endangering future generations by some transfer of altered genetic or viral material is a line we must be careful not to cross. For instance, introducing cells from animal species into the developing human embryo or fetus may result in the entanglement of animal-human parts during the developmental stage in a way that crosses moral boundaries. The animal cells could end up in the gonadal tissue of the human being and form animal gametes (eggs or sperm) within the human’s body. The same concern for interspecies mixing is not true for the use of animal organs within an individual human.

In our bid to advance science and transform society for the best, we need to be very careful about abusing our roles as stewards of God’s creation and avoid crossing obvious interspecies barriers. For the lives who are saved by such groundbreaking technology, we ought to be grateful to the God who wishes above all things that “we prosper and be in good health even as our souls prosper”.