Surgeons have successfully transplanted a pig’s kidney into a human for the first time, opening the door to the use of animals to make up the shortfall in donor organs.
The operation was performed at NYU Langone Health, an academic medical centre in New York City.
The donor pig had been genetically modified to reduce the likelihood of rejection and the recipient was a clinically brain-dead patient with signs of kidney dysfunction.
After the transplant, the patient was monitored for three days while the kidney was maintained outside her body.
The recipient’s family had consented to the experimental procedure before she was due to be taken off of life support. The family reportedly felt “there was a possibility that some good could come from this gift”.
Dr. Robert Montgomery, the transplant surgeon who led the study, said the kidney "had absolutely normal function" and "didn’t have this immediate rejection that we have worried about".
He told Reuters there was no sign of the severe rejection symptoms that have plagued similar experiments in the past.
The researchers had been working for several years on eliminating the problem of organ rejection, and theorised that “editing out” one particular part of the pig’s genome called alpha-gal might be the answer.
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The genetically altered pig, trademarked as GalSafe, has been developed by a company called United Therapeutics Corp. It has already approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for use as food for people with a meat allergy and for medical use.
In a statement, United Therapeutics CEO Martine Rothblatt said: “This is an important step forward in realising the promise of [animal organ transplants], which will save thousands of lives each year in the not-too-distant future”.
Dr Montgomery stressed that the new procedure was still experimental, and that further obstacles might be encountered in transplants lasting longer than the three days allowed for this study.
However, he said, for people with severe kidney disease even an experimental procedure was worth risking.
"For a lot of those people, the mortality rate is as high as it is for some cancers,” Dr Montgomery said, “and we don't think twice about using new drugs and doing new trials (for cancer patients) when it might give them a couple of months more of life”.
Some 75,000 people in the US are currently waiting for an organ transplant, and about 20 die every day because they couldn’t get one. Around 6,000 patients in the UK are awaiting organs at any one time.
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