Believe it or not, pigs might soon extend the lives of people waiting for organ donors. Researchers from the National Institutes of Health and collaborators from a group of international universities and organizations have kept hearts from genetically engineered pigs alive in baboon abdomens for up to 945 days. This research could pave the way for more cross-species transplants (called xenotransplants), help us learn more, and usher in an odd future where human lives can be saved by animal organ donors.
An average of 22 people die each day while awaiting transplants, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Furthermore, people awaiting heart transplants were typically on the donor waiting list for an average of 3.5 months in 2015. If cross-species transplants become acceptable practice, the incidence of death while waiting for a transplant would hopefully drop.
In the recent experiments on xenotransplants from pigs to primates, the researchers used donor hearts from pigs that were genetically engineered without a molecular marker in the blood that otherwise causes fatal blood clotting in primates. The hearts were put in the abdomens of baboons and connected to the primate blood supplies to keep pumping, although they did not replace the baboons’ own hearts. The baboons were also given immune-suppressing drugs to halt rejection of the organs by the primates’ immune systems.
Previous work resulted in a median organ longevity of 180 days and a maximum of 500 days. In the more recent research, the median was 298 days survival and a maximum of 945 days. Much more research and experimentation is needed though, including work with other organs and with primates who do not retain their own hearts.
No timeline is set for this line of research leading to actual implementation with humans, but the day may come –possibly a few decades hence– when dying while waiting for a human organ donor will not be common. Various groups may object to xenotransplantation, but it’s more likely that people who need new organs and their families will be all in favor.