Surgeons successfully test pig kidney transplant in human patient

A surgical team at the hospital in New York examines a pig kidney attached to the body of a deceased recipient for any signs of rejection. Photograph: Joe Carrotta/AP

Surgeons have attached a pig’s kidney to a human and watched it begin to work, a small step in the decades-long quest to one day use animal organs for life-saving transplants.

Pigs have been the most recent research focus to address the organ shortage, but a sugar in their cells, which is foreign to the human body, causes immediate organ rejection. The kidney for this experiment came from a gene-edited animal, engineered to eliminate that sugar and avoid an immune system attack.

Surgeons attached the pig kidney to a pair of large blood vessels outside the body of a deceased recipient and observed it for two days. The kidney did what it was supposed to do – filter waste and produce urine – and did not trigger rejection.

“It had absolutely normal function,” said Dr Robert Montgomery, who led the surgical team in September at NYU Langone Health in New York City. “It didn’t have this immediate rejection that we have worried about.”

This research was “a significant step,” said Dr Andrew Adams, of the University of Minnesota medical school, who was not part of the work. It will reassure patients, researchers and regulators “that we’re moving in the right direction”.

The dream of animal-to-human transplants – or xenotransplantation – goes back to the 17th century with stumbling attempts to use animal blood for transfusions. By the 20th century, surgeons were attempting transplants of organs from baboons into humans, notably Baby Fae, a dying infant, who lived 21 days with a baboon heart.

With no lasting success and much public uproar, scientists turned from primates to pigs, tinkering with their genes to bridge the species gap.

Pigs have advantages over monkeys and apes. They are produced for food, so using them for organs raises fewer ethical concerns. Pigs have large litters, short gestation periods and organs comparable to humans.

Pig heart valves also have been used successfully for decades in humans. The blood thinner heparin is derived from pig intestines. Pig skin grafts are used on burns and Chinese surgeons have used pig corneas to restore sight.

In the NYU case, researchers kept a deceased woman’s body going on a ventilator after her family agreed to the experiment. The woman had wished to donate her organs, but they were not suitable for traditional donation.

The family felt “there was a possibility that some good could come from this gift”, Montgomery said.

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SOURCE: Associated Press