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Xenotransplantation's Paradox

Transplantation surgeons work miracles. They take organs from one body and integrate them into another, granting the lucky recipient a longer, better life. Sadly, every year thousands of other people are less fortunate, dying while they wait for suitable organs to be found. The terrible constraint on organ transplantation is that every life extended depends on the death of someone young enough and healthy enough to have organs worth transplanting. Such donors are few. The waiting lists are long, and getting longer.
Freedom from this constraint is the dream of every surgeon. So far attempts to make artificial organs have been disappointing: nature is hard to mimic. Hence the renewed interest in trying to use organs from animals.
The ethics of xenotransplantation are relatively unworrying. People already kill pigs both for food and for sport; killing them to save a human life seems, if anything, easier to justify. However, the science of xenotransplantation is much less straightforward.
Import an organ from one animal to another and you may bring with it any number of infectious diseases. That is much well known. Many diseases that could harm humans may be both undetectable and harmless in their natural hosts. Diseases that have been dormant for years may suddenly become active if they find themselves in a new environment, such as a human recipient's body. After that, they may start to infect other people. This risk should not be underestimated. The DNA of every organism carries within it hundreds of ghosts of infections past. Although most of such "retroviruses" gradually lose their infectious powers, some retain their ability to leap out of the host DNA - often much later.
Of course it is possible that none of the retroviruses will be harmful to humans; possible too that scientists will eventually isolate all prospective troublemakers. But at a time when thousands of British cattle are being slaughtered because of the suspicion that they have a disease that may be transmissible to humans, it seems a reckless gamble to take.

Adapted from The Economist, December 21st, 1996, p.16.


DNA: DeoxyriboNucleic Acid; the acid that carries genetic information in a cell.
To leap out: surgir, apparaitre
To slaughter: to massacre, to kill
A reckless gamble: un jeu trop osé.


1) According to the text, what does xenotransplantation consist in?
2) What made surgeons consider xenotransplantation as a possible way to prolong life?
3) Why is it xenotransplantation risky?
4) Would you accept the organs of other species if this could save your life? Why or why not?
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