Matt Morgan: Learning from all creatures great and smallBMJ 2022; 376 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o723 (Published 22 March 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;376:o723
- Matt Morgan, consultant in intensive care medicine
In January, David Bennett became the first person to receive a heart transplant from a genetically modified pig. Although Bennett sadly died earlier this month, the operation was a landmark moment in medicine and potentially moved us closer to being able to use animal organs for transplantation in humans.
Last year a team in New York transplanted kidneys from the same line of genetically modified pigs into Jim Parsons five days after he became brain dead. This is remarkable, and I hope that the names of these brave, pioneering patients will be remembered forever.
For the past three years I’ve been writing a book exploring how a better understanding of the lives of animals can help us care for human patients. The pandemic has thrown a light on how the health of humans can’t be divorced from the wider ways in which we live alongside other animals. Although animals give us a lot of material goods, from food to transplantation organs, they can offer so much more if we open our eyes to examining how they live, rather than looking only at the goods they supply us with when they die.
Expanding our moral circle of concern to non-human animals should be a celebrated part of growing as a species. It can also help medicine. Understanding the life of the kangaroo, which has three vaginas, could help us improve human IVF, just as watching a giraffe breathe could help us better understand asthma.
Although this may seem like a big ask, people working in healthcare can play an important part in making these connections between animal and human health, an undertaking that has knock-on benefits for us all. At a local level, the introduction of a therapy dog called Maggie to our intensive care unit has done far more for staff wellbeing than any yoga classes, and she’s become a highlight of the week for our longer term patients. I hope that it also helps Maggie, who seems to thrive on the experience.
Perhaps we should translate this into the wider ways in which the hospital functions. Expanding the range of vegetarian food offered to patients and staff beyond eggs and lettuce would be welcome. For meat based dishes, healthcare facilities should insist on using animals that were raised using the highest ethical welfare standards.
And perhaps it’s time to train doctors together with vets in the early years. Better shared understanding of interspecies health and disease will ultimately help human patients, help animals, and help our world for all creatures great and small.
Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that I have no competing interests.
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Matt Morgan is an honorary senior research fellow at Cardiff University, consultant in intensive care medicine, research and development lead in critical care at University Hospital of Wales, and an editor of BMJ OnExamination.