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Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

Animal Organs in Humans: Unresolved Risks

The Greek word xenos means stranger or guest; a xenograft is the transplantation of organs and tissue from one species to another. Desperately ill patients, today condemned to early death, might someday live years longer should biomedical advances permit them to receive baboon hearts, pig livers, and other animal organs.

But what of the public health risks, such as the transmittal of animal viruses to humans? And what of the moral dangers in usurping the 'natural' order? These issues remain unresolved. But today, unlike Mary Shelley's time, they are debated openly.

Baby Fae lying in a hospital crib with her heart transplant scar visible. Courtesy of UPI/Corbis-Bettmann.
Baby Fae. Courtesy of UPI/Corbis-Bettmann.

This infant, known only as Baby Fae to protect her privacy, was born with a fatal heart defect. In 1984, she became the first infant to receive a baboon heart transplant; she died twenty days later.

Jeff Getty walking with his right arm upraised as he is being released from San Francisco General Hospital. Courtesy of Reuters/Lou Damatteis/Archive Photos.
Jeff Getty. Courtesy of Reuters/Lou Damatteis/Archive Photos.

Buoyant AIDS patient Jeff Getty salutes onlookers after being released from San Francisco General Hospital in January 1996. He had just received bone marrow from a baboon, capping a two-year effort to get permission for the procedure, intended to help boost his immune system. Getty died in 2006 from heart failure after treatment for cancer and a long struggle with AIDS.