Pigs tend to get a bad rap in western culture, but if they start saving lives, maybe we will forget about their infamous filth.
Human organs are in short supply, but young pig organs are plentiful and about the same size. The problem is, surgeons can't simply stick a pig heart in a human and expect the body to go about business as usual. Animal organs are ultimately seen by the immune system as intruders, even if the body is in desperate need of that organ.
Xenotransplantion, the act of taking an organ from one species and putting it into another, has been attempted in humans before, with disastrous results. However, genetic engineering could ease the transition.
"We're turning xenotransplantation from what looked like a kind of Apollo-level problem into just an engineering task," Martine Rothblatt, founder and co-CEO of United Therapeutics, told MIT Technology Review.
Rothblatt's own daughter will need an organ transplant one day, and there's no guarantee that she will get a new set of human lungs before pulmonary arterial hypertension claims the ones she was born with. So, Rothblatt has been pouring funds into the division of her biotech company called Revivicor, which is working to "humanize" pig organs by inserting human genes into them. She expects that the first successful pig-to-person lung transplant is just a few years away, according to MIT Technology Review.
Recently, researchers blew away the previous record for the longest-ever heart transplant from pig to baboon, achieving 945 days of success. Then, this summer, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh claimed they managed to keep a Revivicor "humanized" pig kidney alive in baboon for over four months.
This is a significant improvement over past attempts at xenotransplantation. In 1992, for example, a woman from Los Angeles died just 34 hours after receiving a pig liver. Other recipients of animal organs have faced similarly rapid demises.
The survival of these pig organs in primates is a breakthrough in the field of xenotransplantation, but there is still much work to be done. Some experts say it's foolish even to give a timeline at this point. However, Rothblatt's own heart is certainly in this effort – as are tens of millions of dollars of her money – and there is something to be said for that.
Photo: J P | Flickr