By John Ikani
A pig’s kidney has been transplanted into a human and was not immediately rejected for the first time.
The medical advancement, called a “transformative moment” by researchers, could pave the way to help the thousands of people in need of organ transplants every year.
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.
On September 25, researchers at New York University performed the transplant, called xenotransplantation, in a two-hour procedure.
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.
Dr. Robert Montgomery, who led the surgical team, said in a statement that the procedure was a “transformative moment in organ transplantation.” He told Dr. Jon LaPook in a CBS Evening News exclusive interview that the procedure “was even better than I expected.”
“The kidney turned a beautiful pink color and immediately urine started pouring out of the ureter,” he said. “…There was complete silence for a few minutes while we were sort of taking in what we were looking at, which was incredible. It was a kidney that was immediately functioning.”
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.