A Kidney Donor’s Perspective on Xenotransplantation in NZ

A Kidney Donor’s Perspective on Xenotransplantation in NZ

A long-time supporter of ours, Catherine Amey has written an article for us on her first-hand experience donating a kidney and how this links back to animal experimentation and the scientific and ethical flaws involved with xenotransplantation.

The below article was written by Catherine Amey for Issue #75 of Mobilise! (our magazine that is sent biannually to our members). Catherine is a writer and the Author of the Compassionate Contrarians. She has been a supporter of NZAVS for a long time and is extremely passionate about ending animal experimentation. 

Catherine with Max, one of the dogs rescued from the Valley Animal Research Centre (VARC).

Saving Brian – A Kidney Donor’s Perspective on Xenotransplantation

Written by Catherine Amey

As I approach the fence, a small black pig trots towards me. When I scratch her bristly back, she almost purrs with pleasure. I first met Brian five years ago at the Black Sheep Animal Sanctuary.  Once a terrified wild piglet, over the years she has developed into a gregarious, mischievous little person. All the sanctuary pigs are overflowing with character, but I have an especially soft spot for Brian.

Brian is also the name of my father, who died of kidney failure on a frosty Te Awamutu evening. Like many New Zealand men, he was too proud to express his pain and fear, and precious months passed before I discovered how ill he was. I offered him one of my kidneys, but he was already too fragile to survive the operation. He existed on dialysis for two years, exhausted and nauseous, losing sensation in his legs as the toxins accumulated in his body. He was one of many kidney patients. Around 550 New Zealanders develop kidney failure every year.

So, when I read that a New Zealand company is planning to transplant kidneys from genetically modified pigs into human patients, this held a special resonance for me.[i] [ii] NZeno already has 16 Auckland Island pigs lined up as breeding stock, leased from the Southland Heirloom Breeds Charitable Trust in Invercargill. Such research will cause terrible suffering for the pigs. In similar experiments, only one live piglet was born for every 100 implanted embryos – a failure rate of 99 percent.[iii] [iv] The process is also risky for humans, due to the significant physiological differences between human and pig kidneys[v][vi]. I considered this as I looked at a picture of the Auckland Island pigs; smallish creatures with innocent eyes, their skin mottled with delicate splotches like grey cabbage roses. Immediately I thought of Brian the sanctuary pig, and also of Brian my father.

Fortunately, there are other options which are both ethical and more effective. First of all, there is prevention, as a healthy plant-based diet may reduce the risk of kidney disease.[vii] If this fails, scientists are developing stem cell technologies to grow kidneys in the laboratory.  3D printing is another option. Artificial kidney tissue has already been created in vitro, and the next step is to replicate the cellular architecture of the human organ.[viii]

A more immediate source of kidneys is from deceased patients. Sadly, New Zealand's rate of organ donation is relatively low. If more people agreed to be organ donors after death, this would save many lives. However, receiving a kidney from a living donor is the best option for someone who has kidney disease.  While my father was sick, I learned quite a lot about kidney donation. Most people can live long and healthy lives with just one kidney.[ix] Even though I couldn't save my father, I could save someone else. 

At the time, I didn't know anyone who needed a kidney, so I started the testing process at Wellington Hospital as a non-directed donor. My initial assignment was to pee into a vast plastic bottle for 24 hours and hand it into the lucky laboratory staff. I think the aim was to deter anyone who wasn’t truly committed! Testing is rigorous, and only around twenty percent of candidates are accepted. Fortunately, being a healthy vegan paid off, and in early 2018 my left kidney was rehomed. In the following months, my energy gradually returned, and normal life resumed.

One thing has altered, however. I feel a powerful connection both with kidney patients and with the animal victims of xenotransplantation. I'm also deeply committed to our public health system.  Although donating a kidney is not for everyone, there is something special in knowing that a living chunk of myself is walking around somewhere. So often we try to change the world by donating money or clicking on a Facebook page. In contrast, I was giving from a deep place inside of me, in every sense. We don't need to experiment on pigs to save people. Instead, we can take action to help humans and animals – whether it be agreeing to be an organ donor after death, supporting nurses on the picket line, or opposing animal experimentation. These are acts not of charity, but of solidarity, in the belief that pigs like Brian and kidney patients like my father deserve life, love and health.


[i]     Ben Bootsma, “Company develops medical research on Auckland Island pigs,” Southland Times, October 3, 2018, viewed on October 3, 2018, https://www.stuff.co.nz/southland-times/news/107558291/company-develops-medical-research-on-auckland-island-pigs

[ii]    Nzeno, “Scientific Basis”, viewed on October 5, 2018, http://nzeno.nz/scientific-basis/

[iii]   Kelly Servick, “CRISPR slices virus genes out of pigs, but will it make organ transplants to humans safer?”, Science, August 10, 2017, viewed on October 7, 2018, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/08/crispr-slices-virus-genes-out-pigs-will-it-make-organ-transplants-humans-safer

[iv]   Sharon Begley, “Birth of CRISPR’d pigs advances hopes for turning swine into organ donors,” August 10, 2018, STAT, viewed on October 7, 2018, https://www.statnews.com/2017/08/10/crispr-pigs-organ-transplant/

[v]    Marco Pereira-Sampaio, Luciano Alves Favorito, Robert Henry, Francisco J.B. Sampaio, “Proportional Analysis of Pig Kidney Arterial Segments: Differences from the Human Kidney, ” Journal of Endourology, 21:7 (2007), viewed on October 11, 2018, https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/end.2006.0318

[vi]   Zuhaib Ibrahim  Jamie Busch  Michel Awwad  Robert Wagner  Kevin Wells  David K. C. Cooper, “Selected physiologic compatibilities and incompatibilities between human and porcine organ systems,” Xenotransplantation, 23 October 2006, accessed October 11, 2018, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1399-3089.2006.00346.x

[vii]   Mimrit  Goraya, Donald E. Wesson, “Dietary interventions to improve outcomes in chronic kidney disease,“ Current Opinion in Nephrology and Hypertension, 24:6 (2015): 505-510.

[viii] Kimberly A. Homan, David B. Kolesky, Mark A. Skylar-Scott, Jessica Herrmann, Humphrey Obuobi, Annie Moisan & Jennifer A. Lewis, “Bioprinting of 3D Convoluted Renal Proximal Tubules on Perfusable Chips,” Nature, 34845 (2016), viewed on October 7, 2018, https://www.nature.com/articles/srep34845

[ix]   “How safe is donating a kidney?”, Live Kidney Donation Aotearoa, viewed on October 7, 2018, https://kidneydonor.org.nz/donor/guides/becoming-live-kidney-donor/how-safe-donating-kidney