Doctors Conduct Successful Pig-to-Human Transplant

( – The Food and Drug Administration recently reported that 10 patients die each day in the US while waiting for a vital organ transplant. This situation is drawing continued interest in xenotransplantation — the replacement of a human organ with one from an animal. A team of doctors and scientists recently conducted the first successful transplant of a genetically modified pig kidney into a human.

On Thursday, March 21, Harvard Medical School (HMS) reported that Richard Slayman received the pig kidney during a four-hour operation at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston the previous Saturday. The 62-year-old recipient suffered from high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, necessitating the transplant.

Slayman previously received a kidney transplant from a human donor. However, that organ started failing after five years, leading to end-stage kidney failure and the need for routine dialysis procedures.

Tatsuo Kawai, M.D., Ph.D., an HMS surgery professor and head of Massachusetts General’s Legorreta Center for Clinical Transplant Tolerance, spoke out about the surgery. He said the transplant’s success was the “culmination of [the] efforts of [countless] scientists and physicians” over several decades. He added that the surgical team was “privileged to have played a significant role” in that “milestone” surgical procedure.

Although Slayman was the first human to receive a genetically altered kidney from an animal, several xenotransplants have occurred over the last 50+ years. For instance, Dr. Keith Reemtsma, M.D., transplanted 13 chimpanzee kidneys into human patients in 1963 and 1964. Since then, doctors and scientists have conducted multiple primate-to-human kidney, liver, and heart transplants with limited success due to surgical complications and rejection.

In the 1990s, scientists started using pig organs since they are anatomically similar to humans and aren’t endangered species like many compatible primates. Additionally, pigs are easy to breed, produce large litters, and are slaughtered by the millions annually — dispelling ethical objectives to killing them to obtain their organs.

In 2003, scientists started producing genetically engineered pigs for better long-term survival rates by removing antigens using “gene-knockout” procedures, making pig organs more suitable for human recipients.

Scientists and doctors consider xenotransplants important despite their current lack of long-term success. The procedures provide an opportunity for patients to temporarily recover “end-organ function” while they await a transplant from a human donor “in a more stable clinical state,” improving their prognosis for survival.

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